The latest Colmar Brunton poll has added a touch of reality to recent surveys, pulling National back by 4 points to 52% support and sending Labour up by 5 to 36%. The 15-point margin is still a little too heavy, in my opinion, but it's nowhere near as ridiculous as the 25 points claimed by the last Colmar Brunton survey.
Having spoken to both Helen Clark and John Key about this recently, I can report that both Labour's and National's internal polling has National ahead, but by around 10-12 points. That also fits with the average of recent polls. Colmar Brunton usually tends to favour National, so if you take 4 or 5 points off you get it about right, I think.
Both leaders appear relaxed about this currently. Clark's position is that the next election is still a long time away and there is no point in panicking just yet. She's also continuing to allow John Key his "honeymoon'', as she puts it, with the media, and still believes that it doesn't matter what Labour says or does at the moment, voters will prefer National simply because Key is new and it's not Labour.
Clark believes that as the next election approaches, voters will begin to turn their minds to what Key and National stand for and what policies they will introduce - and what policies National will repeal.
She does have another problem, though. An economic outlook report released by Colmar Brunton today says economic pessimists now well outnumber the optimists. Pessimism is up 2 points to 41%, while optimists number 31%. I have always found these surveys to be more reliable barometers of public feeling towards the Government.
For his part, Key is of course happy to be ahead - and by a margin that would still pretty much guarantee National could govern alone. Key is realistic about the coming fight with Labour as the election approaches, and hasn't let the poll ratings go to his head.
He must be worried, however, about the performance of the other centre-Right parties. While Labour allies the Green Party are still above the 5% threshold (although only just) and the Maori Party will be happy with 3% (considering it will probably win the Maori seats anyway), the other minor parties continue to founder.
New Zealand First is rating a steady 2% now, while United Future is struggling to remain in the hunt with just 1% support.
Worst of all, though, is ACT - now polling so badly it is no longer mentioned in Colmar Brunton's top-line results (parties must rate at least 1% to get mentioned). ACT is rating a pathetic 0.3%, just above the fringe parties like Destiny NZ (0.2%) and Libertarianz (0.1%).
Gee, that kind of support really repays the faith ACT has shown in leader Rodney Hide's new warm and cuddly approach, doesn't it? Ever since Hide dumped his "perkbuster'' role and went on Dancing with the Stars, ACT's poll ratings have slumped. He might be a nicer guy, but voters no longer have a reason to vote ACT.
Signing the code of conduct along with Parliament's hand-wringers and cuddling up to Labour is just going to make things worse. Hide reasons that he wants to turn ACT into an MMP party that can work with anyone. But Parliament already has plenty of those - New Zealand First and United Future, to name but two.
ACT's point of difference was that it was an out-and-out, ideologically pure (well, mostly) libertarian party of the Right. It was a natural coalition partner for National. Its MPs knew what it stood for and so did the public. It only ever polled 5 or 6% of the vote, but that's still 15 times what it is polling now.
ACT founder Sir Roger Douglas, always a man who calls a spade a spade, told it like it was at the weekend, describing ACT's new relationship with Labour as a joke. He's right. Unless Hide takes the party back out to the Right where it belongs, he's going to find himself as the lone MP for Epsom in 2008.