Underlying perceptions and the Cunliffe crisis: Poll analysis

It's getting late in the day for Labour to get it together, because its problems aren't first impressions but rather go much deeper

It's still a bold political observer who would want to call the election at this stage. Two new TV polls last night painted a picture that's pretty consistent with our own Poll of Polls – a close election. But the most telling question remains: What is Labour going to do with David?

The TV3-Reid Research poll had National up and the TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll had it down, but they were meeting in much the same place – 46-47 percent. Both had Labour on 31 percent. The Greens are pretty settled around 11 percent at the moment.

In our own Poll of Polls, those will bring National down a smidge, but otherwise the trend across the poll this year is pretty clear and it's in National's favour. While as an MMP election it's still open, National has been in rampant form this year (yes, I've just been reading the football pages!).

In the second half of last year it was a different story. Labour's primary race and David Cunliffe's win put the party in the spotlight and some floating voters liked what they saw. Labour looked like a party tidying its house and getting its act together. It was a solid platform that has been wasted by indiscipline, infighting and inexperience.

Three ins and you're out, you might say.

National has benefited from the opposite, most specifically the discipline shown by those at the top of the party list and surrounding the Prime Minister. John Key has a team with a clear and simple message: "We're getting there, but we're not there yet. So don't mess with it".

The past political month has been dominated by the Oravida story and Judith Collins' Shanghai excursions, plus a John Key golf game and Hekia Parata's willfully inept investigation into the Kohanga Reo Trust. Amongst that there was the story of Cunliffe's use of a trust fund in his run for the Labour leadership. The sums were smaller and the life of the story shorter. Yet it has done much more damage to Labour than the bigger stories have to National. Why? In short, underlying perceptions.

Just ask the taxi driver I had the other day. He said he preferred Labour's policies, but they looked weak as a party. National looked strong and despite his concerns about their lack of concern for the likes of him, that strength seemed likely to tip his vote at this stage. It's an advantage of incumbency, but also the advantage of stability.

After five and a half years, John Key's National Party has runs on the board in tough times. It is regarded widely as competent and clever, which is why the potentially sackable sins of Collins and Parata can be defended and defused. At another time or in another party, either could have been toast. But here and now those failings are considered an anomoly.

For Labour the opposite is true. Every failing seems oh-so typical, every indiscretion a sign of a wider instability. The party has chopped and changed leaders and looked unreliable. After a strong introduction, the impression around Cunliffe now is a lack of trust: Tricky Davey.

So while Cunliffe doesn't deserve all the blame, his claims to not be concerned about his personal preferred PM numbers are rubbish. Both TV polls had him below 10 percent. People aren't at all convinced by him, most especially his "leafy suburbs" comments and funding arrangements. Key remains National's key to success and voters have to see Cunliffe as a potential leader of this proud country if enough of them are to tilt away from the status quo. The onus is on him to be seen and to be seen to be strong. Cunliffe has to first get visible, then get confident and, ultimately, get better.

Key just needs to keep doing what he's doing and avoid getting smug, tired and loose.

A 15+ gap between National and Labour makes it very hard for New Zealand First – even if it decides it wants to change the government – to make the case to its voters. And it's too big a gap to bridge, even if Labour can muster a better turnout amongst its 'missing million'.

Just as was the case a year ago, Labour and the Greens need to find another five percent from somewhere to be properly in the running. They did it in the second half of 2013 as the GCSB and other problems made National look wobbly and insincere. Now, however, the hour is getting late.