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The Popularity Of John Key - Why Brand National Is No Longer Significant

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford
John Key

 Yesterday, I read one of the most interesting pieces of political blogging I have seen all year on the Tumeke website. Entitled "Why Key is so popular" it sought, from a left standpoint to elucidate on why the PM continues to enjoy high ratings.

The blog admitted that Key's popularity is an issue that the left "are grappling with as the RWC blocks out the election." The blog posits that we have become subjected to the mythology of Key as the poor boy made good and that appeals to what Tumeke calls "low information voters." Most importantly, the blog holds that for all these reasons: 

The most important thing any left wing political strategist should read when contemplating strategy to attack the National Party with is this incredible insight into the utter dysfunction of American Politics.

This blog comes at a time when I was contemplating National's election strategy. For the last forty years, New Zealand politics has been following the American presidential template where campaigns have been designed by public relations companies as mere contests between the two or three leading party leaders and, accordingly, have downplayed ideological and policy positioning. This year is no exception.

In the United States, presidential campaigns have emphasised personality over party for the last fifty years. If you look at a collection of American campaign ads on You Tube from the time of Dwight Eisenhower's campaign in 1952 through to Barack Obama's in 2008, you get the impression that both major party candidates in any given year were running as independents or non-pledged candidates. The party name barely features (if at all) in many presidential campaigns. If party labels are used, they are done so by opponents only to tag their rivals by negative association e.g. Republicans as 'the party of the wealthy' and the Democrats as 'the party of tax and spend.' These labels have carried over into New Zealand politics.

This type of personality over party label campaigning has worked in New Zealand for the likes of Norman Kirk (1972), Rob Muldoon (1975), David Lange (1984) and Helen Clark (1999 and 2002). In some years, though, when governing or opposition party leaders have been unpopular, their image has been used less. I remember this happening to Rob Muldoon (1978, 1981 and 1984), Helen Clark (1996) and Jim Bolger (all campaigns from 1987 onwards). During these campaigns, the wider Cabinet/party 'team' has been emphasised and the leader has been portrayed within this context as the leader of the team.

This year, the National Party will be particularly advantaged by the presidentialised template. Already, I have noticed when listening to Parliament that National MPs emphasise the 'John Key Government' in speeches. National candidate advertising emphasises the words John Key more than any other. Overall, for National, the party label is almost irrelevant. This has flustered the likes of Labour MP Clare Curran who Facebooked a couple of weeks ago about the number of tee-shirts emphasising brand Key that were being worn by the campaign team of her National Party rival in Dunedin South.

It seems that the Nats know that their leader is a winner. 

That's why the Nats will emphasise John Key in this campaign. This means that the sharp, hard right edges of National policy, such as state asset sales, will not have a great deal of attention given to them by the party in this campaign. Instead, the 'good ol' boy' personality of Key will be stressed to the max. The man who could be the next door neighbour who you would trust to return a borrowed lawnmower. The man who you would like to have at your next barbeque or dinner. A man that you can trust to make the hard decisions in tough times and yet smile all the way through. Middle Zealandia will lap this marketing mythology all up.

Conversely, Labour will place a great deal of importance on the unpopular Phil Goff as a team leader and will stress policy more. Their policies might be more palatable to New Zealanders than National's right wing prescriptions but, nonetheless, they will not be able to hide the Achilles heel of their campaign - Goff himself. The Labour leader will therefore have to campaign very hard to overcome everything that National and Key will throw at him. This coming campaign has been clearly designed (as it already seems) to further hurt and even humiliate Labour and Goff before it's even begun!

So, this year, brand John Key will have greater prominence than brand National. And, sadly, they could be onto a winner. After all, as one American advertising consultant once said, it was important to market presidential candidates like you would soap. And that's how market capitalism dictates the democratic process.


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