Bill English and Jacinda Ardern - the rock versus the rockstar

National's big dilemma - how do they counter the Jacinda-affect?

National's big dilemma - how do they counter the Jacinda-affect?

OPINION: You know it must be real when even Jacinda Ardern's opponents in National start talking up the "Jacinda effect."

One senior Nat let the words slip in a conversation about the latest polls. He won't be the only one. The midnight oil is burning in the Beehive as they talk about countering the Labour leader's rock star appeal.

"How do we deal with Jacinda?". That's the question they'll be asking the focus groups and the pollsters.

Can Bill English match Jacinda Ardern's rock star appeal on the campaign trail?

Can Bill English match Jacinda Ardern's rock star appeal on the campaign trail?

* Stuff's poll of polls
* How good is the poll for Labour?
* The Jacinda effect - it's definitely a thing
* Greens co-leader Metiria Turei resigns and Jacinda Ardern's popularity soars in new poll

Go hard? Get personal? Panic in National's ranks makes both look tempting. But probably not is the answer to both. Ardern has already given National a woman problem. New Zealand is effectively polarised along male-female lines. The majority of women are with Jacinda, men are with Bill.

It used to be like that under Helen Clark till John Key came along. He rid National of its flinty face and brought women voters across. But Ardern is winning them back.

Attacking her personally might even boomerang. Ardern is just too likeable. Even people who don't vote Labour like her.

National is now finding out what it's like to have the shoe on the other foot.

This is what Labour grappled with for so many years against John Key. People who would die in a ditch before voting National admitted they couldn't help but like the former National leader.

Personal attacks washed off Key for that reason. People didn't find Labour's attacks on Key as credible. He goofed around. He joked about his kids. He loved his cat. He was authentic. A wolf in sheep's clothing? Hardly.

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So go after Ardern's inexperience instead? It was no handicap to Key, who had not been in Parliament as long as Ardern, and had never been a Cabinet minister either.

But National is running hard on the line that this is a classic "don't put it all at risk" election.

So Arden will have to brush up fast on the economy. In Morrinsville on Thursday she waved off questions about the Reserve Bank's latest Official Cash Rate announcement. She should have had an answer ready.

The economy questions will come hard and fast as the campaign gets into full swing. National thinks that is where Ardern is weak. And not just Ardern, but her finance spokesman Grant Robertson. Robertson hasn't delivered any king hits against Finance Minister Steven Joyce on the economy. He hasn't got the gravitas of former Labour leader Michael Cullen yet.

And Bill English, the finance minister who steered New Zealand through disaster, financial crisis and gloom, is still National's most potent weapon. He has credibility in spades. He's the guy you want running the line "don't put it all at risk".

But English won't be a rock star on the campaign trail like John Key. And Ardern will be.

Key was mobbed where ever he went in 2014. The Queensgate shopping mall still sticks in the mind as an extraordinary day. Thousands of people filled the ground floor. Hundreds more hung over the upstairs railings. And Key couldn't move more than 5 metres inside the doorway. He was surrounded by a throng and they all wanted their picture taken with the visiting celeb.

On a different planet, David Cunliffe wafted around empty shopping malls, lunging at elderly women in desperation. I recall one bewildered punter trying to wrench her arm free from Cunliffe's iron handshake as the cameras rolled.

That seemed like the natural order of things given Key's dominance on the political stage.

There will be huge symbolism if those images are reversed this time round.

But still that may not be fatal to English.

Ardern's deputy, Kelvin Davis, gifted National a bill board when he ridiculed English for having the personality of "a rock".

It didn't take National long to seize on the more positive connotations. Rock solid. Steady as a rock. Bill English – the rock. It played to National's strengths.

But Ardern's rock star appeal does give her an advantage. John Key sold optimism against the backdrop of the global financial crisis. Ardern can sell excitement at a time when people are getting bored with National.

National might be a safe pair of hands, charting a steady course, trusted to man the economic tiller – but it has never successfully managed to sell its economic vision as an exciting one. Even its own supporters grumble that it's got no oomph.

So what's National's plan b then?

Throw everything at it? Add an extra zero to the tax cuts? Go big and bold by bringing forward a project like Auckland light rail? Throw some serious money at the environment, putting its shoulder behind protecting the 100 per cent pure brand?

It will loosen the purse strings. But only to a point – it also has to be careful not to undermine its own platform of economic credibility. And it must also  watch its back against NZ First, which is targeting disgruntled Nats in provincial New Zealand.

What it probably won't do just yet is panic. On the latest poll, Winston Peters is still king maker, and he could still go either way. And the Jacinda effect has had its uses, including weakening Peters' hand, and galvanising National's vote. 

In the wake of the Newshub poll National dug out previous results to reassure itself that Labour has got this high before – in July 2015 it was around 32 per cent.

But the difference is Ardern, whose personal popularity outscores any of her predecessors since Helen Clark.

And that's why this election feels different to the rest. National has never looked like losing before. This is the first time it has had to contemplate that it might. 

And in an election year which has already turned every other assumption on its head, the next six weeks could see anything happen.

 - Stuff


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