The Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan has come out swinging against the polls, which unanimously report his party polling nowhere near the 5% threshold. He basically says they’re fake news because they (mostly) only poll landlines. He predicts TOP will actually get between 5% and 10% of the party vote and make it into Parliament.
TOP pride themselves on being an evidence-based party. So it behooves us to examine the evidence behind Gareth Morgan’s suggestion that TOP have a real chance of winning representation in Saturday’s election.
Question: Has any party ever achieved what TOP is trying to achieve?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Only one party has ever won representation under MMP in New Zealand without a sitting electorate MP from a sitting party. That sole exception is ACT, who had several prominent former Labour and National cabinet ministers. That happened in the first MMP election, when everyone and their mum voted minor party.
Not many parties have won representation under MMP in New Zealand, whether through the 5% threshold or local seats. Only one MP has ever won representation for a party that didn’t have an MP elected in 1996 for one party or another: Hone Harawira, for Mana.
Most of the small parties that have won representation have done so via a local seat (Māori, Mana, Progressive, United, ACT, and NZ First have all coat-tailed in). Only 7 parties have ever reached 5%: National, Labour, the Greens, NZ First, ACT, the Alliance, and United Future. The last three have all failed more times than they’ve succeeded and have basically shriveled away to nothing (or, worse, to David Seymour). Scores of parties have failed to reach 5% OR a local seat: the Conservatives, Christian Heritage/Coalition, Legalise Cannabis, Destiny, Outdoor Recreation, Future, etc.
Question: Does the polling suggest TOP have a chance of reaching the 5% threshold?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: No. TOP have never exceeded 2.5%—half the threshold—in either the Radio NZ or the Stuff poll of polls. From information publicly available, their highest poll results are 3% and 3.5%—both on polls leaked from Labour’s internal polling. Most polls have had TOP between 1% and 2%. And their polling isn’t improving—if anything, it’s getting worse.
Question: Might the polling be wrong?
Short answer: Anything is possible, but TOP reaching 5% would require polling error on an unprecedented scale.
Long answer: It’s possible that the polls are wrong. It’s difficult to poll correctly and some error is inevitable. In 2014, in the week leading up to the election, NZ First polled 6.6% on Fairfax-Ipsos (they actually got 8.66%), the Greens polled 14.4% on 3 News-Reid Research (they actually got 10.7%), and the Conservatives polled 3.3% on Herald-Digipoll (they actually got 3.97%).
But polling averages and patterns are more reliable than individual polls. And even the famous polling underestimations of Brexit and Trump were basically within the margins of error. Both outcomes were considered less likely than the alternative but not out of the question. TOP cracking 5% would be way beyond the margin of error and completely bizarre.
Even with the errors cited above, polling averages in NZ in 2014 were reasonably close to the final results. The issue of many polls being landline-based is well-known, but also well-known to the polling companies themselves, and they have ways to correct for landline misrepresentation (and their relative accuracy last election shows they do pretty well at it). No party shot up to more than double its polling average on election day. If this happened for TOP, it would be polling error on an unprecedented scale.
Question: NZ First unexpectedly came back in 2011; could TOP do something like that?
Short answer: This situation isn’t comparable to that.
Long answer: In 2011, NZ First shot up in the polls after Winston capitalised on the Teapot Tapes scandal. Before TeapotGate, NZ First were polling only a bit better than what TOP are polling now. After TeapotGate, their numbers shot up. In the last set of polls before the election, they were above 4% in every poll except Reid Research (generally an inaccurate poll), and at 6.5% on Roy Morgan. They actually got 6.59%. It’s also worth remembering that NZ First were an established party who have never polled below 4% in any election since MMP begam.
There is no indication of any one-off event that’s going to shoot TOP up in the polls. (In fact, the Gareth Morgan Attention Meter has been at dangerously low levels for weeks and has now dropped to zero.) It’s still theoretically possible that such an event could happen in the next four days, but TOP would have to rise further and faster than NZ First did to crack 5%.
Question: Could TOP win a local seat?
Short answer: There is no evidence to suggest they will come close to winning any local seat. Morgan might have had a chance, but he isn’t standing in a local seat.
Long answer: In a “major campaign shift” after voting already began, TOP have started pleading for local votes in 13 seats, as an alternative route to representation as the hope of reaching 5% slips away. But it’s too little, too late. Winning a local seat when you’re not one of the big two parties is extremely difficult. It takes a concerted effort, not a last-minute plea for Grant Robertson’s votes.
Anyway, there’s no polling evidence (or any evidence) indicating that any TOP candidate has any hope of winning any local seat.
This is a good time to remind ourselves that no new party has ever won a local seat (or any seat) without a sitting MP or some high-profile former cabinet ministers. Gareth Morgan could have been the first exception to this, because he has a high profile and a lot of resources. But for some reason he declined to stand in a local seat—he’s a list-only candidate.
Question: Is this a good year for a minor party to achieve the never-before-achieved?
Short Answer: No—on current polling this will be the worst MMP election ever for minor parties.
Long answer: No, this is not a good year for a minor party to try to achieve the never-before-achieved. Before Jacinda took over, it might have been. But now, it’s looking like the worst ever year for minor parties since MMP began. On the latest figures, only about 16.5% of party votes will go to minor parties:
Question: Couldn’t a vote of support for TOP’s policies still help those policies come to fruition, even if TOP don’t win representation?
Short answer: Maybe, but you’d have to really prefer TOP’s policies to any other party’s policies for this vote of support to pass cost-benefit analysis.
Long answer: Sure. This could be the case—indirectly, if a decent party vote makes other other parties more likely to adopt TOP’s policies, or makes TOP more likely to come back next time with a more evidence-based electoral strategy. If you do the Spinoff’s Policy tool, you may find that you greatly prefer TOP’s policies to anyone else’s policies.
If you think TOP’s policies are so much better than the policies of any other party that you’d do more good by giving a symbolic vote of support to TOP’s policies than by helping your second-favourite party maximise their representation, then by all means vote TOP.
Or if you want to do a protest vote against the six parties that actually will get representation, by all means vote TOP.
Or if (for whatever reason) you can’t morally justify voting for any of the six parties that will actually get representation, by all means vote TOP.
Or if you believe it’s your civic duty to vote for your favourite party, strategy be damned (and if your favourite party is TOP), by all means vote TOP.
I’m sure there are plenty of reasons you might want to vote TOP. But if you think they have a realistic chance of getting into Parliament, you’ve left evidence behind. TOP-esque policies are more likely to actually be implemented in the next three years by the Greens, which is one reason I’ve party voted Green.
As for you, you should do what you want with your vote, even if it’s a principled unstrategic vote or a protest vote. I just don’t want people voting under false misconceptions. I wrote this blog because I believe “TOP have a realistic chance of winning representation this election” is a false misconception, according to the evidence available to us.
Question: So what should TOP do if they want to get into Parliament?
Short answer: Campaign for electoral reform and be more tactical next time.
Long answer: Here I’m switching into my opinion on effective strategy rather than sticking to the evidence. But for what it’s worth, here’s my opinion:
TOP should devote their considerable resources for the next 3/6/9/12/15 years to campaigning to make our electoral system more democratic. For example, by campaigning to lower the blatantly anti-democratic 5% threshold and/or introduce instant run-off voting for local seats and sub-threshold party votes. This would remove the spectre of “vote wastage” that places a near-insurmountable burden on new and small parties like TOP. It would be good for them and good for us. And it worked for Rod Donald with campaigning for MMP.
Next election, if TOP want to run again, they should do extensive research working out which local seat would be most open to electing Gareth Morgan as their local candidate. And they should stand him there. They should door-knock this electorate like crazy, poll it heavily, and widely publicise any positive poll result all around the country to build the impression that they’re a safe party vote, due to coat-tailing. By doing this they could help make it a reality.