Thomas Coughlan: National attracting younger voters, will Luxon reap election reward?

OPINION:

National is becoming more popular with young people; in fact, the three most recent polls from the party’s recently re-commissioned pollster, Curia, found the party beating Labour among voters under 40. Two of the three most recent polls found it would be in government with Act if only people under 40 were allowed to vote.

On those polls, which Curia publishes with the Taxpayers’ Union, Labour’s strong overall performance was mainly thanks to the party polling high (10 points above National) with the over 60s – giving it essentially the same support with that group now as it enjoyed on election night 2020.

The numbers come with a string of caveats. Pollster David Farrar, the man behind Curia, says when a poll of 1000 people is sliced and diced into age cohorts, the margin of error rises to about 7 per cent, meaning National’s often fractional victories don’t represent a clear edge among under-40s.

But a high margin of error can be mitigated by observing the trend repeat itself across multiple polls.

National has beaten Labour with young voters for three straight months (although the most recent victory was a tiny 0.4 per cent). Young voters appear to have swung to National after Luxon’s elevation to leader. Labour was winning under-40s in November by 34 per cent to 14 per cent, but since December, National has polled 30-33 per cent with under-40s – always just ahead of Labour.

Whether National is actually winning is difficult to tell with a margin of error that large, but National does appear to at least be outperforming its poor reputation among younger voters. This has multiple party figures interested, including the leader.

The party wants to work out if there is something going on that’s seeing youth swerve blue – or at least not skew red to like it has done historically. If there is a trend, National is wondering whether that can be harnessed and sustained until the next election.

Christopher Luxon said he thinks support among younger voters is down to the party’s focus on the cost of living and housing crises, both of which are acutely felt among younger voters.

Farrar reckons the trend could be down to the fact the pandemic – the most popular issue for voters in his poll (more than 20 per cent said it was their most important issue) – was not hitting younger voters in the same way it was the rest of the population.

Younger people were possibly frustrated with public health restrictions that were disproportionately holding back their lives and careers, whilst not benefiting from the public health upside, as younger people have a much lower risk of getting seriously ill or dying.

A bigger question for National is how much it should change itself to court these new supporters, and how much it risks alienating its already antagonised older base.

The party has already alienated some well-heeled supporters in the leafy suburbs with its support for bipartisan intensification legislation, and it’s so far held firm to its policy of raising the superannuation age, which is apparently popular among young voters (despite the fact they’ll be the ones to suffer from a higher retirement age). Should the party of the property-holding democracy become the champion of unpropertied, overtaxed youth?

It’s not unheard of to see a party propelled to victory on the back of a wave of previously untapped support. Boris Johnson’s 2019 landslide enjoyed support from previously Labour-held working class seats in the north of England, and Jacinda Ardern’s remarkable 2020 majority win was thanks to broad support across all age and income demographics – including wealthy, older voters who rarely, if ever, vote Labour.

But new demographics are often fickle. Johnson now finds his leadership challenged by MPs from the very constituencies he was instrumental in winning; the most recent 1 News-Kantar Poll found Ardern’s approval had plummeted among voters who earn more than $100,000 a year who had ditched her and swung strongly behind Luxon.

National needs to ask itself whether the dissatisfaction with the Government’s record on housing (the median house price has increased $350,000 in Labour’s four years in office, versus an increase of $195,000 under National’s last nine years in office) is strong enough to overcome Labour and the Greens’ far less equivocal stances on younger issues like climate change, rainbow rights, and abortion.

For every party carried to victory on a wave of fresh support, many more have torn themselves to shreds in a forlorn attempt to contort themselves into something that might appeal to people who were never really likely to vote for them (or vote at all). Labour spent nearly a decade hunting for its “missing million”, before realising victory was really about finding a John Key with Labour characteristics.

There’s something of a lesson in Curia’s numbers for Labour, too. Having spent the better part of a pandemic courting older, wealthy voters, the party should not be surprised that younger voters have begun to ditch the party. It’s being taught a lesson National learned last term: in a crisis, few supporters are ever quite as rusted on as you think they are.

Both parties should be watching broader polling trends which show National as the most favoured party to manage seven of the top 10 issues voters care about. According to an Ipsos poll this month, inflation is now the issue the largest number of voters rate as the “most important”, and for the first time since 2018, National, rather than Labour, is seen as the best party to tackle that issue (National is leading on the second most popular issue too: housing).

None of that does anything to change the fact that no major poll has had National with any plausible path to victory since early 2020. But Labour’s flagging popularity among key support groups, on key issues, and, perhaps most importantly, the increasing polarisation around leader Jacinda Ardern suggests the 2023 election is likely to be far more competitive than appeared likely just six months ago.

One question that remains unanswered is whether this simply represents an unwinding of Labour’s unsustainably high, pandemic-inflated support to something resembling the competitive National-Act vs. Labour-Greens race of early 2020, or whether it’s a more pivotal and structural shift that portends victory for National in 2023.

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