Phil Goff seemed to cream John Key in the TV3 debate tonight, but only emerged with a one point victory.
Phil was ready for this debate. He was armed with stories of real life. He was armed with counter-punches to match Key’s predictable claims. He gripped the front of the lectern with bent arms and a smile on his face.
John Key was terrible. He was not emotionally ready. It was visible in his stance. He was in a backward leaning slump, one hand in a pocket and the other ill at ease on the lectern. Although he tried to unsettle Goff by talking over him, he upset his own rythym.
Goff’s success came from the way he was saying things. He had passionate conviction, and some stress in his voice. He found a bit of mongrel.
But it was also what he said. There’s a real difference between saying “Labour has a policy to grow jobs”, and “the Principal of a local school says this poverty is affecting kids in a way he’s never seen before”.
The first is empty aspiration. The latter is rooted in reality. Sometimes the politician doesn’t even need to state a policy off the back of that: just knowing about this reality gives them credibility that they have the better idea of how to deal with it.
John Key went back to familiar Prime Ministerial territory. Most of his speeches follow a pattern where he knits together a broad ‘traders’ perspective on world economic affairs, the NZ economy, and his predictions for what will happen.
He did that tonight, and the result was rambling explanations, tortuous arguments, and a jumble of figures you couldn’t follow.
Key had few easily comprehensible answers to anything. But somehow he clawed his way back. It happened in the 4th segment, on the subject of coalitions. I had been tweeting during the debate that he needed to become physically animated, and suddenly he did. He found his feet taking a “voters get to choose” position on coalitions and talking about how he would work with anyone (except Winston Peters).
Goff faltered. His answer about working with Winston was equivocal, and his criticism of Key and his coalition partners was self-serving.
The last segment was a to-the-camera closing statement. Inexplicably, Goff stopped his passionate criticism of Key and adopted soft-toned, fuzzy focus pleading. It was pitiful.
Following him, Key pulled out the last dregs of his optimistic and boyish charm to make a strangely comfortable, over-animated, ‘vote for me’ pitch. It worked.
So the five rounds finished with Goff winning the first three and Key the final two. That’s a points victory to Goff. The opening rounds were on such critical matters that the pundit in me says Goff had a major win. But the finish from Key was possibly enough to make his current voters stay with him.
On the strength of that performance, following on from the terrors of last week, the undecideds will not stick with Key. Their votes will go elsewhere. That is what will make this coming election result so strange.
One final word on the unfairly-derided “worm”. The “worm”, a graphical representation of the likes and dislikes of uncommitted voters watching the debate, went crazy for Goff and hated John Key. The pro-Goff sentiment seemed to initiate a reset by the Roy Morgan researchers. A quarter way through the debate it looks like they may have re calibrated the detection sets back to neutral. But it didn’t help. Goff set the worm off again, and Key brought it back to neutral. The strength of support for Goff was a very surprising result. It gives strength to the possibility of Labour winning undecideds and last-minute voters.