OPINION: The National Party is shedding support in the rural heartland and the party would be wise to sit up and take notice.
According to a just released Fairfax Media/Ipsos poll, rural support for National is down 6 per cent since the election.
Surprisingly, support for National in rural areas is lower than in urban centres.
There is reluctance to switch camps to Labour, with disenchanted National voters apparently preferring the Greens, NZ First and the Maori Party.
What are we to make of this?
It seems a loss of faith has started to occur.
Voters inclined to trust Prime Minister John Key to lead the country amid a difficult economic situation largely still do.
They certainly don't see anybody else doing the job any better.
There must, however, be a suspicion the Government doesn't have a particularly strong grip on the steering wheel.
For a good while, many voters found appeal in Mr Key's relaxed persona and his background in the private sector was reassuring to them.
Rural people, I suggest, are disinclined to trust people who have done little with their lives other than be professional politicians.
They value real-world experience. They see value in people who have proven themselves in spheres other than politics. They probably trust those people more.
Having led a life outside of politics helps give some politicians a down-to-earth common touch.
National Party strategists will probably ponder whether Mr Key has started to lose this, wondering whether he is starting to come across as someone now familiar with and part of the political machine.
Of course, Mr Key's unbelievably long honeymoon phase with voters had to end at some point.
And it was inevitable that the focus would shift to Mr Key's record as prime minister and the National Party's record as the leading party in government.
The Government has done little to assist the productive sector or rebalance the economy.
It talks well about the global financial crisis and the European debt crisis, but, apart from penny-pinching, hasn't done much to set the country on a course for growth.
This is a government that has been drifting and voters are prepared to let that go on for only so long.
The test of Mr Key's leadership is how he handles things from here. It will be no easy assignment.
Mr Key is apparently starting to lose support from women.
He has started to become a more polarising figure.
Such developments would have been hard to imagine two years ago.
But it might be what happens when a leader pushes something unpopular like asset sales and when there is fighting over policies such as class sizes.
It could be that some of the shine came off when Mr Key appeared happy to trade some of the country's rules so that a convention centre might be built in Auckland.
Whatever, leaders who make decisions cannot avoid fallout with the voters.
Being prepared to make calls is what leadership is about, so we might be seeing a necessary progression in Mr Key as leader.
He still has the confidence of a clear majority of voters - with 63 per cent of those polled agreeing he is a strong and effective leader.
Buy why the loss of rural support?
What I think has happened is that the National Party is not so connected with the rural heartland as it once was.
When Mr Key is on our television screens, he is probably offering his views on gay marriage or defending the Government over some mini-scandal of little relevance to most rural people.
If National has become the party of choice for trendy urban liberals, this is ground Labour and the Greens should be confident about winning back.
I suspect rural voters are a more reliable fit for National, so when their support starts drying up it should sound alarm bells.
* Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.
- Manawatu Standard
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