Policy is important, but the 2017 election is now about leadership. Change versus the status quo. Who has the X-factor? In six weeks we will know
James Carville, President Bill Clinton's campaign manager back in 1992, famously coined the phrase "it's the economy, stupid" to explain their election strategy. Fair enough, but not that profound. Almost all elections are about the economy. People vote with their hip pocket in mind.
Except. The New Zealand 2017 election is not going to be about the economy. It is going to be about "leadership, stupid".
Here's why. Up until late July, the election was set to be about policy. The National Party was polling well after nine years in government (a stunning achievement), its leader had been in politics a long time and was known for his steady, stable, capable approach while all around him opposition parties were in disarray.
Then came co-leader of the Greens Meteria Turei. Taking a page out of the Trump playbook, she tried to get her party to dominate the news cycle by calling Winston Peters a racist (he isn't) and confessing that she lied to Work and Income 24 years ago when she was a solo mum.
The Greens surged in the polls by taking votes from an already underperforming Labour Party. Labour leader Andrew Little became a casualty of the Green's success when he mused out loud about his possible resignation, defiantly said he would fight on and then decided to call it a day.
Meanwhile, the media (rightly) dug into Turei's story and found that all was not as it had been presented. More lies emerged. Pounded by bad publicity, falling polls and concerns expressed by her family, Turei decided first to rule herself out as a future Minister and then as co-leader.
Amidst all of this, Jacinda Ardern became the leader of the Labour Party, performed like a natural in front of the media and set off a "Jacindaquake". Polls showed her jump to level pegging with Bill English as preferred Prime Minister and the Labour Party made it back into the 30's for the first time in years.
A bit of context: Over the past nine years, New Zealand made its way through the Global Financial Crisis under the guidance of the National Party and the economy is now in reasonable shape – at least compared to the rest of the world. Feeling like they were doing a good job, the National Party decided to frame the election as "business as usual". They were a safe pair of hands "delivering for New Zealand".
But there is another story. The New Zealand economy is underperforming (why is it we are not rich when we have so many natural assets?), wages are stagnating, productivity is low, social problems abound, public services are stretched, our clean green image is at risk – and there is a pervasive sense that the country lacks a plan for what is going to be a very challening future.
The story has been around for a while, but voters have felt there was no alternative to National. All of a sudden there is.
New Zealanders are wondering if they too can have a Justin Trudeau (elected as Prime Minister of Canada at 43) or Emmanuel Macron (elected as President of France at 39). Jacinda Ardern is saying – "yes you can".
James Carville rightly emphasised the economy, but he also said that elections were about change versus the status quo. When Clinton ran against Bush the elder in 1992, he stood for change, Bush represented the status quo. Clinton won.
The National Party entered the 2017 campaign hoping leadership would not matter. It mattered to them when they had John Key at the helm because he connnected with the New Zealand public. For all his strengths, Bill English does not have the Key X-factor, so they want to talk about policy.
No more. Leadership is back on the agenda where it belongs. Leadership has always mattered in politics. It matters even more in the media saturated world we live in. In the absence of real competition, National's strategy might just have worked. It may still. There are four weeks until voting starts and six until the election. The Jacindaquake has yet to shake loose those crucial middle ground voters.
But who in the current political environment would say that is not possible?
By the way, James Carville also reminded us to not forget about health care. Think Dunedin hospital. Think waiting lists. Think mental health crisis. Leadership is required.
It is all on.