Voting starts in the election today, and at this stage, the signs are that Labour has its nose in front to form a Government.
But the situation is finely balanced, and while both main parties are cagey about their own polling, it sounds as though they both believe they are much closer together than the public polls suggest.
What is clear though is that NZFirst is likely to hold the balance of power much as National is trying to avoid that situation.
And POLITIK has learned that a number of senior Labour MPs believe they can form a Government with NZFirst.
National, on the other hand, are not so confident they can do a deal with NZFirst.
Instead, senior National Ministers are hoping that the party can increase its share of the vote and form a Government with the Maori Party and ACT.
But it’s a big ask.
There is a recognition at the top of the National Party that they could not meet NZ First’s policy demands for changes at the Reserve Bank, a cut back on immigration, restrictions on foreign investment and a big boost in Kiwirail spending.
Instead, National’s hopes rest on an assumption that Labour’s poll ratings will not be matched by their vote because they are so reliant on under 35 voters who traditionally in New Zealand don’t vote nearly as much as older voters.
At the last election, around 38% of voters under 30 did not vote.
However, only about 20% of voters over 40 did not vote.
So if the under 30 non-vote was reduced to the same level as the over 40s – that would be another 105,000 voters to count.
If Labour had gained all of those votes, it would have increased its overall vote share in 2014 by 5%.
Experts believe that this under 30 non-vote explains why the Greens, with their strong appeal to young people, always perform less well than their polls on election night.
This young non-vote also explains why Labour’s campaign is pitched so intensely at young voters and why the party is happy to have the overall campaign described as a campaign about generational change.
This was clear yesterday with the party’s Wellington rally which featured the Phoenix Foundation, the Black Seeds and Fat Freddy’s Drop — a stark contrast to the country music at the NZ First rally on Saturday.
It also explains why Labour is promising within its first 100 days to make the first year of tertiary education or training fees free and increase student allowances and living cost loans by $50 a week from January 1, 2018.
Labour may also have the Electoral Commission on their side who this year have designated 200 new advance polling booths where from today voters may enrol and vote at the same time.
Each University or tertiary training institution appears to have been allocated one of these special booths.
And National’s Maori Party strategy looked shaky last night also with the release of two polls showing Maori Party Co-Leader Te Ururoa Flavell well ahead in his Waiariki seat by 60.1% to 39.9% but Rahui Papa well behind in Hauraki-Waikato where Party President Tukuroirangi Morgan had staked a big bet on King Tuheitia’s backing of the Maori Party.
But Labour’s Nainaia Mahuta appears to have beaten that off. She is ahead of Papa by 78% to 22%.
There may be some consolation that the party is slightly ahead of its last election performance in the party vote.
Even so, it looks as though the Maori Party may get only two or three seats rather than the four National’s leadership were hoping.
National also believes that the mood within the electorate is changing; that voters are comparing Jacinda Ardern and Bill English more critically and that English’s experience is winning in that comparison.
Even so, POLITIK understands that the party is making a slight change of tack in its campaign this week and will, in the words of one party official, feature more “vision.”
But the ultimate question this campaign will be who can do a deal with NZ First.
Peters himself was being his usual inscrutable self when questioned about this on Saturday.
“For 24 long years all I have heard is who are you going with,” he said.
“Can I just tell you why that is such a bad question.
“It means that poltics doesn’t matter if you are prepared to do something before you know the facts.”
So what are the facts he wants to know?
“What’s the water tax in the Labour Party?” he said.
“What’s the taxation rate on assets – that’s all down to a committee.
“There’s two things we want to know about; taxation and water.”
He said this was an illustration of what they needed to know but there is talk within NZFirst of opposiong the water tax as a way of delivering a “win” to their provincial and rural supporters.
National say that the tax has galvanised its rural support base more than any issue in recent years and that they are getting strong support from the rural and provincial seats and are confdeint their vote will be up there.
There is little doubt that National has had a shock this election campaign by the surge of support for Labour and the consistency of complaints about issues like housing, homelessness and poverty.
One senior Minister told POLITIK that if the party got back it would have to apply more urgency to delivering in these areas.
It is an indication of how tense the fight is that senior Ministers are suggesting moves like this in contrast to the confidence they took into the Budget only four months ago.