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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PoliticsNovember 14, 2023

Did donations translate into votes in the 2023 election?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

In the three years leading up to the election, some parties banked a hell of a lot more than others. But did donors get bang for their buck? Emma Vitz takes a look.

The final votes have been counted. Negotiations are under way and Winston Peters continues his favourite tradition of keeping the country in limbo.

Will the shape of the new government be influenced by the political donations that the parties have collected over the past three years? Looking at the donations and votes received between 2021 and 2023, we see some clear differences.

National collected by far the most, with just over $9 million (in 2023 dollars) pocketed between 2021 and 2023 and over a million votes in the final count, equating to 38.08% in percentage terms. Act came second, pulling together almost $5 million. This translated into just under 250,000 votes (8.64%).

Meanwhile, the Greens, Labour and New Zealand First collected between $1.3 and $1.5 million each in the years leading up to the election. However, the Greens managed to collect 330,000 votes (11.6%), or about half of what Labour achieved (26.91%). New Zealand First pulled together 173,000 votes (6.08%) in the final count. Te Pāti Māori collected a modest $100k, which translated into just under 90,000 votes (3.08%).

All of this means that on a per-vote basis, for each of the 250,000 votes they ended up winning in the 2023 election, Act received almost $20 in donations between 2021 and 2023. This compares with just over $8 for each vote collected by National and just under $2 by Labour. Te Pāti Māori was the most thrifty political party to make it into parliament in 2023, receiving $1.17 in donations for every vote received in the recent election.

There are a number of ways to interpret these results, and your takeaway is likely influenced by your political persuasions. On the one hand, rightwing parties are backed by more money. On the other, Act has failed to translate that into the number of votes it was hoping for (earlier in the year the party was polling well into the double figures), and while it has 11 seats to New Zealand First's eight, it's now at risk of being usurped, at least in terms of in influence, by the less-well-funded party.

On the left, the Greens collected the largest amount of money per vote, which may hint at champagne socialism, or just generosity, depending on your perspective. Te Pāti Māori, which collected the smallest amount of donations but arguably had some of the greatest success in the final results, showed that a concerted grassroots campaign can succeed.

All of this is subject to change, since only donations over $20,000 have been disclosed for 2023, with smaller donations not requiring disclosure until the end of the year. However, the ways in which it is likely to change might surprise you. 

It might seem like the left should collect many small donations while the right relies on a few deep-pocketed individuals. Bernie Sanders loved to say that the average donation to his campaign was $27, and we might assume a similar dynamic holds in New Zealand. However, it’s actually much more of a split between the major parties and the minor parties, and it’s highly dependent on their general popularity. 

A far greater percentage of the total donations made to small parties comes in the form of large donations over $20,000. The smaller the vote share, the greater the proportion of total donations that comes from large donors. When large parties are languishing between 20 and 30% in the vote count, they collect the least amount of money from large donations. However, eventually the curve goes in the other direction – when large parties do really well, the proportion of their donations that come from large donors inches up a bit, perhaps cannibalising from the smaller parties. 

This speaks to the difference between the soft middle, who might donate a few dollars (or not) and vote for National or Labour (or not), compared to the small group of hardcore supporters of the minor parties. These people are much more likely to vote for their party of choice and donate generously, even when no one else will. 

Note that all figures have been inflated to 2023 dollars.

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