Friday, 13 November 2015

Nurturing the Seeds of Distrust: Dirty Politics and the Public's Changing Perception of John Key's Leadership over the last four years

[Note: Danyl's latest offering at The Dim Post - in which he highlights John Key's popularity at the last Election via 2014 NZES data - has encouraged me to dig out and publish this half-finished Post from last year. Tragically, I've accumulated around 20 of these partly-completed but never published posts in draft form. Some I consciously abandoned as obsolete/overtaken by events, while others just withered on the vine as my attention and interest turned elsewhere. The preview date says Thursday 24 August 2014 - presumably the last time I modified the draft. That would be a couple of weeks after Hager's book came out in a blaze of publicity and three or so weeks before the 20 September Election]

The sudden eruption of the Dirty Politics scandal over the last two weeks has shocked many in the media and blogosphere into arguing that the doubts now surrounding John Key's honesty, integrity and character are entirely unprecedented. The underlying premise, often explicitly stated, but always at the very least implicit, is that, until now, Key has continued to enjoy absolutely stellar personal popularity ratings - ratings that supposedly haven't budged since he became Prime Minister.

It's a line of argument perhaps best exemplified by One News lead Political Reporter Corin Dann's suggestion a few days ago that: "It's created a doubt about the Prime Minister which wasn't there before" and (in the context of the Espiner interview) that Key "really, really struggled and I think everybody for the first time, well, the mask was pulled away...".

Note: Other examples / and Quotes of current orthodoxy on Key here.

In one very important sense they are, of course, correct. Nothing of this magnitude has hit Key before.

It would be a mistake, though, to assume that, up until the release of Dirty Politics, Key's image had remained entirely untarnished or that his popularity and broad support-base remained fully intact. The weight of polling evidence over recent years suggests that, in fact, Key's popularity reached an apex back in the middle-to-later stages of his first term and has been slowly but steadily eroding ever since. This is true both in terms of his leadership qualities and Preferred PM status.

I suspect, then, that these latest Nicky Hager and Whaledump revelations about Key and his entanglement in this long-running campaign of Dirty Politics (as unprecedented as they surely are) will simply accentuate underlying doubts that were already there in the minds of many voters. The question is: how decisive will the issue of honesty - as opposed to, say, competence - be in the voting booth ?

Preferred PM Status

For all the hyperbolic rhetoric over recent years about Key's alleged "unprecedented popularity", the fact is he's been on a downward trajectory in the Preferred PM stakes ever since the 2009-11 period. If we focus first on the two polling companies (One News Colmar-Brunton and 3 News Reid Research) that employ, as far as I'm concerned, the most appropriate methodology for this particular measurement, we find that, during his first term in Office (2009-11), the PM was consistently scoring in the late 40s to late 50s, and averaging 52% throughout this entire period (53% by 2011). In stark contrast, Key has, with few exceptions, been drifting in the late 30s to mid 40s since early-2012, averaging just 42% as Preferred PM, 11 points down on 2011.

True, he has enjoyed a slight revival over recent months, reaching the very lowest limits of his 2009-11 ratings in June this year (both Colmar-Brunton and Reid Research had him rising from 43% to 47%). But that's still well below his first term average. What's more, the most recent polls (even before Hager's revelations hit the bookshelves) suggest Key has been unable to retain that 'June Spring' mini-surge of support (he dropped back to 44% in the Mid-July 3 News Reid Research, remained there in Early-August and has now fallen to 41% in the latest 3 News poll. Meanwhile, the latest One News Colmar-Brunton has Key falling back to 45%). My guess ?: Key was the temporary beneficiary of a series of media attacks on Opposition Leader David Cunliffe's integrity, criticism that reached a crescendo around May/June of this year.

Here are the relevant 3 News Reid Research figures highlighting Key's Second Term decline as Preferred PM (2012-14), relative to his ratings in the First Term

  3 News Reid Research    - Preferred PM (John Key)                
 2009        52,        51,        52,        56,        50,                            
 2010        50,                 49,                 51,                                   
 2011        49,      52,      48,      51,      53,      55,      53,      50,   

  3 News Reid Research     - Preferred PM (John Key)               
 2012        46,       44,       41,       43,       41,       37                    
 2013        41,       38,       41,       42,       41,                               
 2014        39,       43,       43,       47,       44,       44,        41,      

And here are the One News Colmar-Brunton stats:

  One News Colmar-Brunton    - Preferred PM (John Key)            
 2009         51,        51,        51,        51,        50,        54,                 
 2010         49,          48,          46,          45,           52,                     
 2011         48,    55,    53,    54,    57,    59,    56,    55,    53,    52, 

  One News Colmar-Brunton   - Preferred PM (John Key)             
 2012         48,         48,         45,         44,         42,         39,            
 2013         44,         39,         42,         41,         42,         43,            
 2014         43,         42,         43,         47,         48,         45,            

Leadership Qualities

Mirroring Key's decline as Preferred PM, the uniquely detailed 3 News Reid Research Polls measuring various Leadership Qualities have revealed a slow but reasonably steady erosion of his broad standing among New Zealand voters over the last four years. For the purposes of this analysis, these leadership attributes can be divided into four groups: (1) Positive Attributes that continue to be measured by Reid Research in 2014, (2) Positive Attributes that Reid Research stopped measuring in 2013, (3) Negative Attributes that continue to be measured in 2014, (4) Negative Attributes that Reid Research stopped measuring in 2013.

  3 News Reid Research  - Leadership Attributes                        
 (1) Positive Attributes still measured in 2014     (John Key)     
                                           High Point                   Now              
 More Honest                       mid 60s%               early 40s%       
 Sound Judgement               late 70s%                late 60s%         
 Good in Crisis                    early 80s%              late 60s%         
 Understands Econ              early 80s%              late 60s%          
 Capable Leader                   late 80s%               late 70s%          

  3 News Reid Research - Leadership Attributes                          
 (2) Positive Attributes discontinued in 2013      (John Key)        
                                            High Point                 Last Poll          
 Lots of Personality             late 70s%                  early 60s%       
 Down to Earth                    late 70s%                       60%             

  3 News Reid Research  - Leadership Attributes                         
 (3) Negative Attributes still measured in 2014     (John Key)     
                                           Low  Point                   Now              
 Out of Touch                     early 30s%               early 50s%        
 Talks Down                       early 20s%               early 40s%        
 Narrow Minded                 under 20%               early 40s%        

  3 News Reid Research  - Leadership Attributes                          
 (4) Negative Attributes discontinued in 2013      (John Key)        
                                               Low Point                Last Poll          
 Style over Substance             mid 30s%                   50%              
 Too Inflexible                       early 20s%                  40%              

Once overwhelmingly positive towards Key, the New Zealand public have slowly
moved to a more conflicted position.

Note: More argument here. Possible importance of Key's determination on Asset Sales for the significant increase in Too Inflexible/Narrow Minded. Possible importance of growing concerns about Inequality for significant rise in Out of Touch measurement.

   3 News Reid Research  - August 2014                                            
 Does National's Election Campaign rely too heavily on the PM ?   
                                    Yes                 No                 Don't Know       
    All                           68%               28%                    4%                
  Nat Voters                48%             No Data              No Data          

Valence Issues

A tentative word of caution, though.
Despite the slow but very real decline in his overall standing, John Key's ratings on some of the fundamental valence issues - capable leader / sound judgement / good in a crisis / understands the economic problems facing New Zealand - remain pretty high. Ten to fifteen points down from their apex a few years ago, but still pretty healthy.

Note: Table with results of past Polls suggesting National more trusted than Labour on the Economy here (Fairfax Research Poll July 2011: Best plan to fix the economy Nat 49% / Lab 17%.   Colmar Brunton July 2011: Most trusted to manage the economy Nat 53% / Lab 24%.   Herald-DigiPoll Oct 2009: Financial crisis handling by Key Government Good 78% / Poor 20%.   Herald-DigiPoll Nov 2008: Which party would better handle New Zealand economy as the world faces a downturn Nat 50% / Lab 41%.   Colmar Brunton Oct 2008: Blame for New Zealand's economic strife International Forces 35% / Clark Govt 14% / Both 49%.   Colmar Brunton Oct 2008: Who do you most trust to manage the economy Key 48% / Clark 41%).

Note: Key's popularity revolves not so much around public perceptions of honesty as around perceptions of basic competence. His honesty ratings are down more than 20 percentage points since 2009. And yet the Nats have generally remained high in the polls. Why ? Might there be a section of National voters who are prepared to overlook their increasing doubts about Key's honesty / integrity and degree of pragmatism, flexibility and One Nation 'egalitarianism' because they still rate him as capable and decisive on leadership and economic management. So, holding their noses and pragmatically placing perceived economic / leadership competence above concerns about his personal integrity. In which case, campaigns built around his dishonesty / immersion in Dirty Politics may not resonate with softly-aligned Tories ? Or are soft Nats still the True-Believers ?