I think Todd Muller can win the election.
He has his work cut out, sure. I don’t think he’s the favourite, but I think there’s a reasonable chance Todd Muller will be Prime Minister by October, and any Labour supporters or strategists who think the election result is a sure thing, count their chickens, rest on their laurels, and put their feet up at their peril.
Because it’s easy to look at the massive shift in the polls this week and get suckered in by the Covid effect. It’s easy to see a divided National caucus and a hugely popular incumbent Prime Minister and think September is sewn up. It isn’t.
It’s true, we haven’t seen National’s new leader under much pressure. But Todd Muller has done a very good job of winning over a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds. I interviewed him about climate change on Q+A last year, and at the time, he struck me as a very good communicator. Clear, confident, and sure-footed. True, he might not be quite as good as Jacinda Ardern, but his press conference yesterday afternoon was impressive and I’ve yet to see him really blunder an answer or misjudge his tone.
There were little things yesterday... little shifts and choices of language that tell you about his strategy. For example, he said, “I am the first to admit and acknowledge that the government's handling of Covid-19 was overall impressive.”
Would Simon Bridges have described anything associated with the government as being impressive? I doubt it. But overall, it has been impressive. And it’s not a binary thing... acknowledging the government has done something well doesn’t mean the opposition hasn’t. Good call, Todd.
Todd Muller looked comfortable in front of the cameras. He didn’t blink much. He wasn’t nervous. He constantly referenced his family and he made self-deprecating jokes about his looks and his religious observance. When he was asked about his conservative social values, and the fact that he opposes legal abortion and euthanasia... he comfortably navigated through his response and noted that his deputy, Nikki Kaye, had completely different views. National’s a broad church, he said. Good answer.
He did a couple of other things really smartly. He sought immediately to draw a line in the sand with the leadership debate. Whether or not he can do that, who knows? That may result on the shape of his caucus reshuffle. But if the last 15 years is anything to go by, National often does a better job of leadership changes than Labour.
He also stayed on message with Labour’s two biggest weaknesses: their perceived lack of Ministerial talent, and their inability in this term to deliver on some of their biggest policies.
Keep in mind... by the time the election rolls around, we’ll have endured one of our toughest winters in a very long time. Unemployment is forecast to be peaking. Hundreds of thousands of Kiwis will be without work and many of them will have never experienced being jobless before. It’s all well and good to be walking around in a Level 2 honeymoon but sadly this is unlikely to last.
Over the next few months, just as he did yesterday, Todd Muller will remind voters about Kiwibuild. He’ll remind them about the grand promises for rail to the airport, about fees-free university, prisoner numbers, and stubborn poverty stats. He’ll praise Jacinda Ardern and say she was brilliant in the heat of a crisis and that she’s a really nice person, but when it comes to the aftermath of a disaster and rebuilding an economy... he’ll remind Kiwis who was in charge after the GFC and in charge after the Christchurch Earthquakes and say National’s the better bet.
Thursday’s 1 News Colmar Brunton poll may have been the straw that broke the back of National’s last leadership team. It showed just 29 percent of voters supporting National. I can tell you now, more than 29% of Kiwi voters will back Todd Muller’s message on Election Day.