Cool heads prevail on the back nine

As we approach the last fortnight, it's gun-to-the-head time in our election. With Labour's private polling suggesting it's closer than we think, the test for Helen Clark and John Key will whether they can keep a cool head

In 2003, Howard Dean was taking on the Democrat party machine in their presidential primaries, pioneering the use of the internet as a political tool. Front-runner John Kerry’s campaign was under serious threat from Dean’s assault. Then, in a seminal lesson in the self-destruct-manual, Dean was gone, undone by a moment of high-pitched screaming which, ironically, became an internet hit.

Bush’s Gepetto, Karl Rove, remarked: “when was the last time Americans elected an angry president?” (One immediately thinks of Nixon, but the question was rhetoric.)

Rove’s point was that, as polling days near, elections becomes less about policy and more about who can stay on message, stay focused, and keep their cool. Inside the last three weeks of our campaign, the lesson is one to be heeded.

It’s not easy. It is a feverish time in party campaign rooms. It is the time when leaders’ frenetic pace shifts to feverish, and staffers’ frenetic moods reach disturbing levels. It is the time when a party under pressure will start attacking the media.

It is also the time when more excitable personalities start demonstrating their excitability. A bad poll usually means an anguished conference call between a party’s senior MPs. The more excited types will demand a rethink of strategy or a reversal of a particular stance. It is never quite clear what they want. They just want things to be, well, different.

But it is also the time when the leader and closest aides need to be confident of their method, and maintain it. In golf, the true test of a player’s temperament and game is how she or he copes with the extreme pressure of a tight finish down the back nine in the last round of a major. In politics, the last few weeks of a close fought election provides a similar test.

Last time, National’s technique started to crumble. We saw, for example, Don Brash admitting that he knew of the Exclusive Brethren’s links to his party and that they would be campaigning on National’s behalf. His admission was unexpected. His colleagues were flummoxed and flat-footed. It was a serious mistake and occurred just nine days out from polling day. Then, just four days prior to the election, Brash got into trouble on a visit to Te Wananga o Aotearoa. It was like a poor drive on the 12th followed by a shot out of bounds on the 17th.

In contrast, Helen Clark’s coolness and confidence in her ability and judgment – honed over years of single-minded endeavour – shone through at the death. Labour’s billboards and broadcast advertising had been somewhat hazy (remember the baby held up by ribbons?). Clark decided to trust her judgment – her technique – and made critical changes. She demanded the advertising become simpler, focused, and tight. The message – it’s all at risk – was hammered. Labour came from behind in the last week.

The current US election is another demonstration of coolness prevailing. We have, on one hand, icy Obama, who trusts his technique and approach. On the other is decent but angry McCain, who is being pushed into dubious campaigning methods with which he is demonstrably uncomfortable. Obama is Mr Consistent. His lines, approach, and personal health have been through the crucible that is an American presidential campaign – 20 months of press conferences, debates, and chowing down donuts in diners. He has barely wavered. McCain’s campaign has been, shall we say, irregular.

Our election is less clear-cut thanks to poll results which resemble the McCain campaign in their oddness. Two – TVNZ and Fairfax – are consistently reporting a National landslide. Two others – TV3 and Roy Morgan – are reporting a messy result which leaves the Maori Party in the position of king-maker. The less frequent Herald Digipoll falls into the former camp. Labour’s private pollsters – the respected Insight poll – fall into the latter camp. Essentially we have three polls reporting a National victory and three giving Labour a decent chance. Whatever National’s pollsters are reporting (this writer is not privy to any information there), the overall outlook is, at best, opaque.

A friend of mine called Henry, in situations like this, likes to apply the loaded-gun-to-the-head test. If a fully-loaded gun was held to your head, you must correctly choose who will win the election. Get it wrong and the trigger is pulled. So, who would you choose? Most would pick National. Why? They’ve led all year, so a National win seems axiomatic. The tanking economy has to hurt the incumbent. And how many fourth term governments has New Zealand had?

Yet, a week out from the last election, there were some in the Labour’s inner circle who were convinced Labour was gone and National was in. They were lucky Helen didn’t own a gun and apply Henry’s Test.