Simon Wilson at Metro writes:
It’s a political truism that when you’re up you’re up, so none of your stumbles knock you off your feet. And when you’re down, every little misstep takes you closer to your grave. Prime Minister John Key is so up, he’s dancing on air. How did this happen?
I blame his critics — his political opponents especially, but also independent commentators. As spectacular misjudgments go, it’s hard to think of anything greater than the nature of their complaints, especially in the early years of his leadership. He was, they said repeatedly, gauchely inept in his speech patterns and his vocabulary, embarrassingly off kilter in his sense of humour, insultingly dismissive of real concerns about various policies.
The result was profound. Key connected to a whole range of New Zealanders who did not see the world the same way as those critics. Their mockery both reinforced his popularity and discredited the people who engaged in it. And, perhaps because the critics did not change their line of attack, that discrediting came to define them.
It has been clear for at least five years now that when Key is mocked, a large part of the electorate reads the very existence of the ridicule as further evidence that he is the right guy for us and the jokers are irrelevant fools. Labour, in particular, while obviously having had its own problems finding the right leader, has added immeasurably to its malaise by misreading the nature of Key’s popularity.
Key’s breakout, unprecedented levels of popularity are part of the conventional wisdom of New Zealand politics so I decided to look at the data and see if it was a real thing. Here’s a graph showing the Preferred Prime Minister ratings from the TVNZ and TV3 polls for the first 62 weeks of both John Key and Helen Clark’s tenures as PM. For Clark this takes us from late 1999 to April 2005, and for Key it takes us from late 2008 until April 2014, ie right now.
Key was very popular in his first term, especially compared to Clark and I think his performance here would compare very well compared to any western leader after the Global Financial Crisis. But second term Key – which starts at week 36, pretty much tracks along with second term Clark. He’s a bit more popular but not amazingly so, and not – I think – to a degree that he can’t be criticised because the public love him so much they’ll turn on any of his critics.
The other thing Wilson touches on, and that I’ve seen other people discussing around the traps is the discrepancy between the public’s evident reaction to Cunliffe’s trust and the Oravida scandal. Cunliffe and Labour have dropped in popularity while National has gone up, even though the Oravida issue seemed like a more serious offense. What’s up with that?
Wilson thinks this has to do with Key’s popularity, and other people attribute it to a biased media or an ignorant public. The mistake many politics junkies make here is that they regard Key and Cunliffe as approximate equals. One leads National, the other Labour. Shouldn’t they get equal treatment in the eyes of the public?
But if you’re a member of the non-politics-obsessed public then – I think – you see them very differently. Key has been running the country for almost six years and seems pretty good at it and Cunliffe is this guy you’ve never heard of who wants Key’s job, but the very first thing you heard about him is that he had some kinda dodgy secret trust and wasn’t straight-up about his first policy launch. It’s a bit like having an old friend and a total stranger dressed in a pirate costume both turn up at your house and ask to borrow your car. Who are you going to give the keys to?
Here’s my point. It’s supposed to be hard to change the government. Now, Key is not magical. He’s not unbeatable. Clark almost lost the 2005 election on popularity ratings only marginally lower than his. But the public doesn’t have to give the opposition leader the benefit of the doubt. They don’t have to listen to him. If they’re given the choice between a known quantity who has been running the country for six years and some new guy who seems kind of bumbling and untrustworthy then that’s an incredibly easy choice and people are making it.