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A fan grieves Key’s popularity bubble

Written By: - Date published: 10:08 am, February 26th, 2017 - 24 comments
Categories: brand key, john key, Media, polls, spin - Tags: , , ,

Tracy Watkins is still stuck in denial:

What, already? John Key yesterday’s man?

Today’s headline news, tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper it seems. The cult of personality reigns in this new world order but we Kiwis seem to be refreshingly above all that.

We really aren’t.

John Key was staggeringly popular during his eight years as prime minister.

He really wasn’t, see below.

But he’s already yesterday’s man, according to the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll.

Key’s ranking as preferred prime minister slumped to just 2 per cent. His successor, Bill English, picked up almost where Key left off, slotting in at 31 per cent.

True, preferred PM rankings can reflect the power of incumbency – but not always. Key overtook Helen Clark as preferred PM more than a year before the 2008 election that turfed her out of power. Conversely, Clark continued to rate highly even after her departure.

Clark was obviously more genuinely popular with her fans, Key’s “popularity” (preferred PM ranking) in his later years just reflected his incumbency, witness the fact that it has largely transferred to the previously invisible new incumbent.

Max Rashbrooke does us all a favour by digging in to the truth of Key’s “popularity”:

Data shows dramatic decline in Key’s popularity

It’s become received political wisdom that John Key was a superhumanly popular politician, someone without parallel in modern history, an unmatchable asset for the National Party while he was its leader.

Not so, it turns out. Data from polling firm UMR, which has been referred to previously but not as far as I know published, shows that Key was no more popular than his predecessor, Helen Clark, and that his popularity took a massive dive over the last year of his reign – which may help explain his resignation in December.

The claims about Key’s success rest on his ‘preferred prime minister’ rating, which did indeed remain stratospheric. But the preferred prime minister ranking was relative: it asked people how much they liked Key compared to the alternatives. Because no one was ever very excited about the alternatives (Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little), Key’s ranking looked good.


But UMR has for years now asked a different, more straightforward question: do you have a favourable or unfavourable view of the prime minister?

The results, in the graph above, are striking. The dark red line at the top is Clark’s favourability rating; the dark blue line is Key’s. (The lighter coloured lines at the bottom are the natural inverses, their unfavourability ratings.)

What it shows is that, throughout their reigns, Clark often had a better favourability rating than Key – even in her last term when, according to received wisdom, everyone had fallen out of love with her. …

So much of political “received wisdom” is self-perpetuating media myths.

24 comments on “A fan grieves Key’s popularity bubble ”

  1. Sam C 1

    Who cares? Why aren’t Labour focussed on winning the NEXT election? Forget about Key. Get on with what’s next.

    • r0b 1.1

      I think you’ll find that (a) Labour are focused on the next election, and (b) I am not Labour.

      However, understanding media myths and the political power of incumbency is useful context in the election to come.

      Hence the post.

      • weka 1.1.1

        This is a very important post. Happy to dance on the grave of this particular JK myth.

        • AB

          Key was a cipher – therefore the only thing to say about him was to discuss his popularity. Which the media duly did.
          Now that he’s gone he leaves no memory, not a trace left behind, like grime wiped off your sunglasses.

  2. UncookedSelachimorpha 2

    Very interesting post! I wasn’t aware of the UMR data and it seems realistic. Thanks.

    Excellent point that “preferred prime minister” is not a measurement of a single person, but a measurement of a bunch of people in one question.

  3. tinfoilhat 3

    While not wanting to state the obvious I will….

    Helen Clark and John Key are long gone and will title to no effect on this year’s vote in the general election.

    The ongoing fascination (usually with a view to denigrate) of the media and political commentators to produce commentaries on these ‘yesterday’s persons’ serves only to take focus away from current issues and politicians.

  4. red-blooded 4

    Well, I guess this helps to explain why BE has good ratings at the moment, despite his bumblings and mumblings and attempts to dodge away from hard questions. It also helps to explain why Little has put such an emphasis on team-building: almost always, it’s not just the individual leader, it’s the whole team that either gives a favourable impression (unified, purposeful, competent…) or not.

    We have to focus on exposing the many gaps and shortcomings of the current lot and show that their approach isn’t working. We also need to give a sense of a strong team waiting to step up – hence the MOU to show that Labour and the Greens can function as a team.

    Great to see the actual data.

  5. Keith 5

    It had long reached the point where Key opening his mouth equalled everyone else closing their ears, Watkins, Trevett, Henry and Hosking aside. You just knew whatever he said bore little resemblence with reality. His credibility was bordering on zero.

    He still will go down, in time, as one of THE worst Prime Ministers we’ve had the misfortune of being led by.

  6. Ad 6

    Doesn’t look that much in those graphs. It’s merely a measure of political capital built up.

    Also, the question isolated from comparator leaders is never helpful: the democratic market is always under contest from competing products.

    The second unhelpful isolation is what the leader did with the political capital they built up: Key spent his embedding his successor and completely renewing caucus and Cabinet, with the further resulting goal of an historic fourth term in power.

    Whereas Clark in her third term did none of that, and instead spent it on her remaining policy goals.

  7. Draco T Bastard 7

    So much of political “received wisdom” is self-perpetuating media myths.

    That’s true of ‘common sense’ as well.

    Which is, of course, why we can’t govern a country or a world on ‘common sense’. When we do we end up with what we have now – a collapsing civilisation.

  8. swordfish 8

    As a bit of a narcissist, would it be indelicate / uncharitable / begrudging / outrageously self-promotional of me to do a rhetorical little cough cough at this juncture ? …

    Open mike 29/04/2016

    Open mike 13/04/2016

    Open mike 13/04/2016

    Matthew Hooton and the Radio New Zealand post


  9. Tamati Tautuhi 9

    John Key was the “rockstar” that led NZ out of the GFC with flying colours and developed NZ into a truely “Rockstar Economy”.

  10. Enough is Enough 10

    I am not sure this is a good thing going forward.

    For years we have believed that the Nats unbelievable lead in the polls was down to smile and wave, and his populist approach to politics.

    Now he has gone and that support has simply transferred, which makes me suspect their support is a lot more solid than I previously believed.

    • Or so the polls would have you believe. Smile and wave, yes, backed by pollsters, spinners, white-washers, Cosby-Textors et al. Those elements are doubtless still active, soothing thoughts of change.

  11. North 11

    Something strangely ‘balanced’ in the graph.

    Like you wouldn’t expect the blue to be 50/50ish with Helen Clark in ‘favourabilty’. Given all the cheap superlatives smeared all over the blue. By the usuals. For years and years.

    Best one I recall…….John Armstrong in the Herald…….”John Key is charismatic !” Like seriously.

    Anyway, a crocodile with tentacles in that graph ?

  12. Red 12

    Jk did 8 years as Pm and undefeated electorally ,, that’s the only stat that counts, You sound like those US snowflakes who can’t get over A trump win, truly pathetic You can’t defeat him now retrospectively, he left on his own will and timing, you where bested and rogered totally at 3 elections , just move on

  13. Phil 13

    As I pointed out on another thread, it’s equally possible that National supporters are happy with the replacement leader, English.

    Meanwhile Labour supporters during ’08 and ’09 were so disenchanted with the next leadership options that they continued to pine for the good old days of Clark.

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