The deal with the Conservatives?

PROFILE: Stephen Mills is a Labour-aligned market researcher and political pollster. He owns and is executive director of UMR Research.
PROFILE: Stephen Mills is a Labour-aligned market researcher and political pollster. He owns and is executive director of UMR Research.

Time is running out on a deal where National surrenders an electorate to the Conservatives.

The quirky feature of MMP where winning electorate seats can trigger party representation beneath the 5% threshold is unlikely to survive.

But looking to the September 20 election National has three possible deals on the table - with United Future's Peter Dunne in Ohariu, ACT's David Seymour in Epsom and the Conservatives' Colin Craig in a yet to be specified Auckland electorate.

Oddly, the deal with the Conservatives, which makes easily the most sense for National, seems the least likely to proceed. A deal with United Future hardly matters but has marginal upside for National. There are risks in a deal with ACT.

The first rule of these deals should be to prevent a wasted vote on your side of politics. If an aligned party gets under 5% of the vote and doesn't win an electorate seat that vote is allocated in proportion to other counting party vote shares.

On this count the Conservatives have a strong case for an electorate deal with National. They secured an impressive debut 2.7% in the 2011 election. They have been averaging around 2% in polls and sometimes pop over 3%. On National's current strong polling in the last few months a Conservative vote of 3% and an electorate deal would be enough to almost guarantee a centre-right government even if National's vote slips a little in the campaign. But no electorate deal means half of say a 2% vote goes to the centre-left.

United Future and ACT have little to offer on this score.Both consistently record a derisory party vote share in all main polls.

ACT got 1.1% party vote in the 2011 election despite ACT being able to argue that National gifting of Epsom meant ACT's party vote right across the country would not be wasted. In UMR monthly polling since that election ACT has only once hit 1%. In three polls it has recorded a party vote of 0% and in three other polls 0.1%. You have to go all the way back to October 2003 to find a UMR monthly survey in which ACT was at 5% and could get into parliament without National charity.

United Future with the same advantage of being able to trumpet that party votes for United Future would not be wasted secured a mere 0.6% party vote at the 2011 election. In UMR monthly polls since the election United Future has never reached 1%. It has recorded five zero party votes and a further five 0.1s. You have to go back to December 2002 since United Future got over the 5% barrier.

On current polling neither ACT nor United Future is threatening to waste more than a tiny number of centre-right votes. ACT can arguably make a more credible argument that they might get to say 3% in the campaign if their new leader gets on a roll.

The second rule of electorate deals should be that they do no harm.

These deals are not popular with voters.

A poll by UMR late last year showed 71% wanted the electorate vote triggering party vote representation to be abolished and only 13% retained.

The implementation phase can also go wrong. The sacrificial main party electorate candidate is subject to derision through the campaign as they evade endless questions on whether voters should support them.

Just as National attacks Labour through the Greens these deals also open up the prospect of National being challenged by the centre-left on what is their position on the more extreme and unpalatable aspects of the minor parties' policies.

Peter Dunne gets a tick on both counts. Signals to Ohariu's National voters have always been managed with little fuss. There would hardly be a New Zealand voter frightened by the likely impact of United Future's demands on the future National-led government. Putting aside the dramas over the leaking of the Kitteridge Report, Dunne has been a safe pair of ministerial hands. He will extract a bit of media attention by demanding concessions on some issues but is unlikely to give National any trouble on real political crunches like asset sales. He also offers at least some minimal optics on National not being absolutely dominant.

The Conservatives would be more troublesome for National but probably manageable. There may be some more mild embarrassment for John Key in distancing himself from Colin Craig's stranger musings. Some liberal urban National voters might be put off by a deal. National voters are keener on deals with ACT and United Future than The Conservatives. A plurality (43% to 31%) were opposed in UMR's May online survey. It would still be highly unlikely that legislation such as same sex marriage would be overturned at the behest of the Conservatives. Even on their 'bottom line' anti-smacking issue, it would be a reasonable bet that National would fend them off with a review.

ACT, however, does not have such a good story to tell.

Even with next to no voters they seem a more serious and demanding party. They are a potential destabiliser of more left-leaning National voters and a potential energiser of left voters on issues such as further privatisations and cutting social spending. Their philosopher leader appears to have all kinds of politically dangerous statements on the record. Their alternative Budget also has a long list of political horrors such as selling Kiwibank, putting interest back on student loans and phasing out Working for Families. In the campaign National may have to distance itself from issues it would much prefer not to talk about.

ACT will make it more difficult for National to neutralise inequality as a political issue. Signalling a deal with ACT also somehow seems to be much more difficult for National to achieve smoothly than with United Future.

John Key went into the 2011 election campaign with a 72% favourable; 26% unfavourable rating.

He came out a net 15 points lower and has not been near pre-election heights since. That was almost all attributable to fallout from the cup of tea with ACT Epsom candidate John Banks.

The Epsom National candidate seems to take far more heat for not truly contesting the electorate vote than the Ohariu candidate.

A bonus rather than a third rule is that the Coalition partner pulls votes across the left-right political divide. United Future's party vote will be too small to do that. The Conservatives perhaps might pull some seriously religious voters from the left, but there is no evidence they are doing that.

ACT in the past has tried to exploit all the wedge issues that can attract otherwise centre left voters over the divide such as crime, social welfare abuse, race and attacking politicians generally. Jamie Whyte's early pitch on "three burglary strikes" perhaps indicates that option is not entirely closed but the alternative Budget is unquestionably going for the freemarket doctor.

National party supporters of a deal with ACT may be taking a long view and want to keep alive the prospect of a secular Coalition partner on the right of National where right votes can go when

National is in a downturn. Others may want a coalition partner to pull National away from pragmatic centrist tendencies.

But on all current polling evidence it is almost a no brainer for National to throw a seat to the Conservatives and there is not much of a case for throwing Epsom to ACT.