Wellington Central just got spicier than a level 4 sando from Soul Shack.
A Newshub Nation poll released this morning has the high-profile electorate of Wellington Central in a three-horse race, with all major candidates within the margin of error. Labour’s Ibrahim Omer is on 30.6%, National’s Scott Sheeran is on 28%, with the Green candidate Tamatha Paul narrowly behind on 26.6%.
It’s the first time Wellington Central has had a competitive race since 1996, when Act’s Richard Prebble won and we all received the gift of this country’s greatest-ever political documentary, Campaign.
Ibrahim Omer and the Labour Party will be relieved to be holding onto first place, but this poll should set off alarm bells. At 31%, Omer is down 26 points compared to incumbent Grant Robertson in 2020. It’s a perilous position for a candidate in a supposed safe seat.
Omer is a highly respected list MP, but winning the electorate is likely his only way to hold onto a seat in parliament his year. This year he’s at number 37, which on current polling makes him unlikely to make it back to parliament via the list. His private member’s bill to criminalise wage theft by employers was one of the most impressive legislative accomplishments for a first-term MP. His history as a refugee who worked as a cleaner while studying at Victoria University is probably the best personal story of any candidate in any seat.
But he hasn’t proved himself to be a natural campaigner. His appearance with Chris Hipkins at the Harbourside Market was awkward; he relied on his more extroverted leader to introduce him to voters. He’s highly personable in one-on-one settings but isn’t as strong of an orator as either of his opponents. So far, he’s been playing Mr Nice Guy in the debates and attempting to stay out of the fray while Sheeran and Paul attack each other. That tactic might not be viable for much longer.
The big winner from this poll – and the reason the race just got interesting – is Tamatha Paul. She’s polling third, but this officially proves she’s in winnable territory. The 26-year-old Green Party candidate has name recognition from her role on council and a highly excited base of volunteers. Her campaign will actually be disappointed by this result. Internally, they think they are the favourites to win and will have expected a better showing.
If Paul does go on to win this race, this poll result could prove to be significant. Third party candidates have to jump an additional hurdle to convince voters they aren’t just an exciting outsider, but actually capable of winning. This poll proves the race is anyone’s game.
There’s an obvious comparison to Wellington mayor Tory Whanau. The only public polling released during last year’s campaign had her at 26%, two points behind early favourite Paul Eagle and six ahead of incumbent Andy Foster. But that poll helped shift voter perception that Whanau was an underdog candidate, leading to a late swing. Whanau ultimately won in a landslide, with more votes than Foster and Eagle combined.
Chlöe Swarbrick benefitted from similar polling in Auckland Central in 2020. She never topped a single poll – the final one two weeks before election day still had her behind both the Labour and National candidates – but those polls may have helped sway soft Labour voters by proving she was a viable candidate.
It’s a strong showing from Scott Sheeran – his 28% would be the best result for a National candidate since 2014. He has been impressive on the campaign trail. He’s quick-witted in the debates (although he has already made far too many jokes about sharing a surname with Ed Sheeran), and is winning over the business-friendly Chamber of Commerce crowds.
He seems like a sure bet to be a minister in some future National government, but not many people would have picked a National candidate to have any chance in Wellington Central. With the left-leaning vote split between Omer and Paul, he may have a slim path to victory.