Politics

Stardust and Substance: How candidates campaigned in the 2017 election

They’re a central element of general elections in New Zealand, but little is known about how individual candidates actually campaign in modern MMP elections. Fortunately, Victoria University of Wellington’s just-published book, Stardust and Substance, includes four chapters on how MPs from the four biggest parties ran their campaigns. Dr Bryce Edwards highlights some nuggets of interest.

The Politics programme at Victoria University of Wellington runs an internship programme for students to work in the offices of politicians at Parliament. And in 2017, some of these students followed their MP on the campaign trail and reported on what they found in four separate chapters. Below are some of the most insightful and interesting features from these accounts.

A Labour MP’s electorate race: Chris Hipkins in Rimutaka

Chris Hipkins has held the safe Labour seat of Rimutaka since taking over the seat in 2008. However, in the 2011 and 2014 elections he actually lost the party vote to National. According to this chapter by Rebekka Evans, his main goal was to win the party vote race in 2017. He achieved this, with Labour winning 43 per cent of the party vote to National’s 39 per cent.

Perhaps much of this might be credited to "Jacindamania", which energised the local campaign. The author stresses the importance of local volunteers in campaigning, and notes that “Ardern’s rise saw a sudden and significant influx of volunteers to the Labour Party campaign across the country.”

Evans concludes that – with reference to the effect of Jacinda Ardern’s impact on local campaigning – “If there is one thing that can be learned from Hipkins’ Rimutaka campaign, it is perhaps that the connection between the national and local levels should not be underestimated.”

A New Zealand First MP’s campaign: Fletcher Tabuteau in Rotorua

Just as a local Labour MP benefitted from their leader’s popularity, the opposite can happen to a local candidate if the national campaign strategy goes wrong. This chapter about Fletcher Tabuteau’s campaign in Rotorua, by Angus Stallmann, details how New Zealand First’s overall national campaign didn’t go to plan, and this disadvantaged one of its MPs campaigning locally.

As Stallmann reports, “There were also problems with New Zealand First’s overall campaign, which at times lacked strategic vision and suffered from poor execution.” This meant that the “overall campaign messaging failed to get through”.

In particular, the party’s unusual billboards featuring Winston Peters with the question “Had enough?” were not properly supplemented by a video campaign which was supposed to elaborate on what the voter might have “had enough” of. Stallmann says the slogan was “open to different interpretations” but “failed to be effectively underwritten by a planned social media campaign using videos featuring Winston Peters: the videos were not widely publicised, removing another dimension from the campaign.”

Tabuteau’s own slogan, which he ran in advertisements, including on the frontpage of the local Rotorua Daily Post, was: “Here for Rotorua. Here for you”. His campaign team also erected another “60 hoardings and 42 signs”. This was all paid for by the $16,000 in campaign funds, mostly raised “through relationships with the business community”, but also from the fundraising of “raffles, movie nights and merchandise sales”.

Tabuteau’s “two key team members” of the campaign were his parliamentary staff in Rotorua, one of whom had been “a Labour Party member for 30 years”.

The main campaign strategy was simply to obtain visibility through a presence throughout Rotorua. But there were some problems. For example, the difficulties of campaigning are illustrated by a trip to the Rotorua Central Mall: “Customers were there to shop. Politicians looking to chat seemed to be regarded as something of a hindrance and the shopkeepers likewise were less keen to engage.”

Tabuteau didn’t achieve his goal of doubling New Zealand First’s party vote in Rotorua – instead the “party vote dropped by 578 votes (to 3,561 votes) – but he felt that “it was a success to survive”. And commenting on his party’s choice to go into coalition with Labour, Tabuteau explains that “Labour made more of an effort” especially in terms of policy.

A Green MP’s campaign: Julie Anne Genter in Mount Albert

Green MP Julie Anne Genter “often required great emotional courage” in her campaign to increase the party vote in Mount Albert. According to this chapter by Karishma Patel, part of the problem was Genter having to deal with voters who didn’t understand the MMP system, and were inclined to therefore to give Labour their party vote in order to “change the government”.

Split voting was a fear – especially with Mount Albert voters giving Genter the electorate vote (instead of her rival Jacinda Ardern), and Labour the more important party vote. Apparently Genter blames the major parties for wanting to keep voters ignorant of the basic details of how MMP works.

A bigger problem was the downfall of Green co-leader Metiria Turei. Patel reports that “after Turei’s revelations, the media deliberately set to uncover more of her past as if it were a scandal, which was inappropriate, uncalled for, and did not serve the interests of citizens.”

The controversy made “it difficult to keep up levels of motivation”. In particularly, it was “harder for Genter to cold-call constituents from home and was, at times, emotionally draining.”

However, Genter had success on social media during the campaign, which she prioritised: “A few months prior to the campaign, she had to pay to improve the ‘reach’ she was getting on Facebook because several other political parties were also using paid advertising in this way. Facebook made a significant difference to her profile: around May 2016 she had about 7,000 people following her public Facebook page; a few months later this doubled to almost 14,000.”

Furthermore, “After increasing her use of social media, she found that she was recognised in the street more, and bus and taxi drivers often told her that they had watched her videos on Facebook.”

After the election, Genter became Minister of Women’s Affairs, and according to this chapter, “her statements about being a ‘full-time feminist’ are indicators of her commitment to her main portfolio”.

A National MP’s electorate race: Mark Mitchell in Rodney

National MP Mark Mitchell is arguably the most successful MP in the country. In 2017, according to this chapter by Stephanie Taylor, he “was re-elected in a landslide, with 63 per cent of the vote and a margin of victory of 19,561 votes over the Labour candidate, his nearest competitor, while securing over 27,010 party votes for National, the most of any electorate in the country”.

So what did Mitchell do so well to achieve this success? This chapter paints a very positive picture of his abilities and his local standing, saying Mitchell had become an “integral part of the local community. He can be described as a classic Kiwi guy: he loves serving the public of New Zealand and takes great pride in his family”.

According to Taylor, “Mitchell led a grassroots campaign focused on supporting Kiwi families”. Furthermore, “the cornerstone of the 2017 campaign was ‘supporting Kiwi families’, and Mitchell and the team took a grassroots approach to grassroots policy. The campaign was all about the community and its people.”

What makes Mitchell’s success more impressive, according to this chapter, is that he managed to campaign whilst also working hard as the Minister of Defence. He had “two teams: the campaign team in the Rodney electorate and the team back in the office in Wellington, with the two often liaising, juggling his diary commitments. A Cabinet Minister does not stop being Minister of Defence just because someone says it is time to campaign.”

Finally, this chapter provides an idea of just how hard this campaigning was: “For Mitchell and his family the campaign wasn’t just a fleeting visit or a pleasant stroll down the street. They did the hard work – three weeks of 6am starts followed by a briefing with the campaign team, meetings, community events, media interviews, door-knocking and evening functions, all while Mitchell was still working in his ministerial capacity.”

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