Can National play the underdog?

Can National remember how to be the underdog - and can Labour avoid the complacency and gloating of the red hot favourite?

Two perverse questions with 12 days of campaigning to go.

A third question: Is the most strategic party vote of all, now, one for the Māori Party, who could well be the Rangatira-makers for either Labour or, less likely, National?

Opinion polls confirm the obvious. The momentum, the "psychic energy" as All Black Murray Mexted used to say, is all with Labour. National has burned one sixth of its vote in six weeks, down from 47 to 39 according to the TVNZ-Colmar Brunton poll. Labour has almost doubled its share in the same survey in the same period - from 24 to 43.

For National, it is a campaign doing about as well as Theresa May's for the Conservative Party three months ago in the near-death experience it had in the UK election - after starting with 50 percent public support in the polls. Indeed, National would have been re-using "strong and stable" government as a mantra this past month had May not made it into the slogan that daren't speak its name.

The tide is going out and the challenge now for National is how to turn things around, how to make itself the underdog up against a seeming inevitability of Jacinda Ardern's Labour backers pulling off the campaign of their lives. 

It is an underdog, however, with a big pile of cash. A governing party which, by the calculation of its campaign chair Steven Joyce today, has committed around 25 percent of its provision for extra spending in 2018-19. It has sprinkled more money, for example doubling the HomeStart deposit available to first-home buyers and stumping up $6 million towards a velodrome in Whanganui.

Piecemeal extras won't do it. Joyce and co. plainly still have plenty of capacity to spend up big in the next 12 days.

The attempt to paint Ardern and her campaign as "stardust", a phenomenon beyond National's control, was the first step in trying to claim the underdog status. If it can convince people that an elite group dominated by urban, millennial and Gen X, liberal, politically correct, people is about to sweep to power with a secret agenda, there might be some fertile ground for National in the regions.

English's cheap jibe at Jafas the other night, telling a Taranaki crowd he supports any team who is playing against Auckland, was all very light-hearted and Winston Peters-like but deployed for effect.

National's fixation on the possibility of a capital gains tax arising from Labour's Tax Working Group will be having an effect on small business owners, among others, in towns around the country. Enough to sow seeds of doubt about the risk of joining the red wave. Peters jumped on that today with his demand that Labour reveals its tax plans before the country votes.

For so long the dominant party in Parliament and in opinion polls, National is having to re-learn the task of winning public approval. It did not have, until the past 24 hours, the presence of John Key. 

Late, last gasps and seeking votes on sympathy or fear-of-the-new should not be enough. But Kiwis are a funny bunch, and will watch for over-confidence from the other side. MMP turns landslides into sinkholes.

But, fresh from a European holiday, he is also now pitching in. Where Helen Clark has fact-checked National on Twitter with a sober and withering detachment, Key posted on Facebook his personal regard and endorsement for English, alongside National's latest biopic of Bill the boy, farmer, husband and father. Key also did a social media live Q&A with the Wellington Central candidate Nicola Willis.

Late, last gasps seeking votes on sympathy or fear-of-the-new should not be enough. But Kiwis are a funny bunch and will watch for over-confidence from the other side. MMP turns landslides into sinkholes.

Labour's big rallies and unprecedented poll results will have had an effect on its collective brain chemistry. From plucky desperadoes to swaggering triumphalists in 40 days. Follow the party officials and activists social media feeds and the tone is changed, a temptation to kick-em-while-they're-going-down emerging. 

The usually astute Labour general secretary Andrew Kirton tweeted yesterday a goading claim of dissension within National's caucus and a front-bench split between backers of Steven Joyce and Nikki Kaye. Kaye drily replied: "Andy, I don't think you got the memo - remember @jacindaardern relentlessly positive campaign?"

Others in its natural support base who have been shut out from power, ignored and even derided by uppity Nats for nine years, are piling on too. Labour will be keen for the lobbyists and commentators who read The Spinoff and agitate through Greater Auckland and Generation Zero to wait just a little longer before declaring victory on social media.

Even Ardern will have been affected by the mob adulation. What does it do to a person to be so personally vital to people's lives, if only for the span of a selfie, in so many occasions in so short a space of time. She, too, veered towards a kind of conceit towards English during the Stuff leaders' debate that wasn't there two or three weeks earlier.

Just months ago it was National counselling itself at its annual conference against complacency. Labour didn't know the meaning of the word.

The third issue becoming clear is if Labour polls in the early-to-mid forties and the Greens make it across the 5 percent threshold, then the tantalising chance of governing without New Zealand First and Peters could be a reality. But only if the Māori Party gets its two to three seats, which looks increasingly possible.

With a Newshub poll on Sunday showing Māori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell likely to hold his Waiariki seat, against the prevailing belief that Labour's former television weather guy Tamati Coffey was set to win, the Māori Party remains in the game.

If Flavell wins and they get enough votes to bring back co-leader Marama Fox, who is number one on the party's list, they could yet go with either main party back into government. If former Kiwi league star Howie Tamati can win the Te Tai Hauāuru seat, as indicated by a Māori Television poll, the party is in business.

A further 'if': what if voters in the general electorates (don't tell Mike Hosking) see the possibility of the Māori Party becoming critical to a change of government without the inscrutable games of New Zealand First - and vote tactically with their party votes?  

Ka mate te kāinga tahi, ka ora te kāinga rua When one house dies, a second lives.

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