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PoliticsMarch 23, 2017

A statistical analysis of John Key’s legacy


Stephen Mills from UMR Research breaks down the Key prime ministership through their long-running polls, revealing a somewhat polarising politician who didn’t quite reach the beloved status of his predecessor.

As John Key is about to leave Parliament it is timely to look at his immediate legacy. He was consistently lauded by political journalists for his high popularity. His relaxed manner, the mobbing for selfies, the National party often polling at or above 50% and his total domination of all Labour leaders after Helen Clark in preferred prime minister match-ups fed that perception.

Favourability rating

If you look, however, at his personal favourability rating which measures the perceptions of voters independent of other political leaders and parties a more nuanced picture emerges.

John Key was certainly seriously popular in his first term. His highest ever rating in UMR polls was recorded after two years on the job in December 2010 at 81% favourable; 17% unfavourable. This is a record for all political leaders in UMR surveys extending back to 1991.

But by his third term his rating, while still very respectable for a leader who had been around for a decade, were far from stellar. His low point, when his favourability and unfavourability were almost equal (50% favourable; 48% unfavourable), was recorded in March 2016.

He was edging up again as his resignation approached and his final reading of 58% favourable; 40% unfavourable was higher than his third term average.

If you look at word clouds, where those surveyed are asked to provide one word to describe John Key, the deterioration between April 2011 when the dominant description was “charismatic” and September 2016 when the dominant description was “arrogant” is obvious.

Comparison with Helen Clark

A comparison with Helen Clark is also instructive. Amazingly, the average favourability ratings in UMR surveys throughout their terms of prime minister were almost identical. Clark over nine years averaged 64% positive, 33% negative; Key over eight years averaged 64% positive; 32% negative.

Helen Clark also peaked in her first term at 77% positive,19% negative (March 2000) and her low was recorded in her last year in July 2008 at 53% positive; 46% negative. John Key did better in his first term than Helen Clark but she shaded him in the second and third terms.

John Key’s favourability rating post-resignation is now higher than it was at the time of his shock resignation. In UMR’s February 2017 survey, he is a net 17 points higher at 66% total favourable; 31% total unfavourable. This was also just higher than his overall average as prime minister. That post resignation rating is strongly polarised by vote with current National voters recording a 99% positive; 0% negative rating in contrast to other parties – Labour voters (42% positive ; 54% negative), Greens (37% positive; 58% negative) and New Zealand First voters (43% positive; 57% negative) all recording net negative ratings.

Helen Clark’s final rating as prime minister just before defeat in the 2008 election was 64% favourable, 35% unfavourable. That rating was her highest for the year. Her defeat then was probably seen as inevitable by most people polled – and suggests, as with Key, a softening in hostility when they were no longer, or soon to be no longer, prime minister.

Helen Clark’s current favourability rating (February 2017) is 78% positive; 18% negative – practically equal to the highest she ever recorded as prime minister.

One advantage that John Key enjoyed over Helen Clark was that he was never remotely challenged in preferred prime minister match ups by a Labour leader. Helen Clark, on the other hand, was overtaken by John Key. In the final media polls prior to the 2008 election John Key was ahead of Helen Clark in preferred prime minister by eight points in the Fairfax Media Nielsen poll and four points in the One News Colmar Brunton poll. The two leaders were even in the TV3 TNS poll and Key trailed marginally in the Herald Digipoll.

Rating of legacies

Direct rating of their legacies shows both John Key and Helen Clark highly rated with Helen Clark ahead. These judgements could change over time. 25 percent of New Zealanders surveyed in December last year believed history would rate  Helen Clark as ‘very great’ and a further 55% as ‘pretty good’. Equivalent numbers for John Key were 22% ‘very great’ and 48% ‘pretty good’ (this somewhat clunky scale was taken from a British survey undertaken after Tony Blair’s resignation and used then for a comparative study by UMR).Handling of Issues

Looking at the major issues John Key faced during his term as prime minister there are mixed ratings on his performance. His highest rating by far was for ‘building relationships with overseas leaders’ and he also has very good ratings for ‘managing the New Zealand economy after the global financial crisis (GFC)’ and ‘managing his cabinet’.

His lowest ratings were for the ‘housing crisis in Auckland’, ‘trying to change the New Zealand flag’ and for ‘improving the life of the very poor and disadvantaged in New Zealand’. The last was a major declared objective when he first became prime minister.

The Case for

There is strong agreement with the arguments of John Key advocates on his affability and reasonably strong agreement on the success of his pragmatism. New Zealanders were more evenly divided (a net 7% agreeing) on whether his time as prime minister showed that it was a good thing to have a highly successful businessperson running the country and a plurality rejected the idea that he had been robbed of the chance to be a truly great prime minister because he had to guide New Zealand through the aftermath of the GFC and the Christchurch earthquakes.


The case against

Testing the level of agreement with the arguments, most frequently made by his critics, showed pluralities of New Zealanders surveyed agreeing that he had no core political principles, that he was very lucky to survive scandals and he was more focused on his popularity than in taking hard decisions.

On trust, New Zealanders were evenly divided with 41% agreeing and 41% disagreeing that ‘there was something about him you could not really trust’. There was strong polarisation by vote on this count.


Dignity of office

New Zealanders, overall, do not appear to be too fussed by John Key’s sometimes unorthodox behaviour as prime minister. When given a choice of two arguments, 62% plumped for the argument that ‘John Key was a really approachable and friendly guy who was prepared to have a bit of fun in public even if it sometimes went wrong’ and 38% for the argument that ‘John Key reduced the dignity of the office of prime minister by pulling the hair of an unwilling Auckland waitress and going along with silly radio stunts like picking up the soap in the shower’.

Perhaps surprisingly the least likely demographic category to support John Key on this count was under 30-year-olds who, facing the choice between those two arguments broke 52% for ‘approachable and friendly’ and 48% for ‘reducing the dignity of the office’.

Opinion on resignation

A majority of New Zealanders also accept John Key’s explanation for his unexpected resignation. Given a choice between two arguments 62% plumped for the argument that ‘John Key’s resignation was unselfish. He said he had no more to give. That proved that he wasn’t a career politician clinging to power as long as possible’ and 38% for the counter argument that ‘John Key’s resignation was essentially a selfish act getting out while he was still quite popular and making it much harder for his own party to win the next election’.

It may be a case of ‘so far, so good’ on the wisdom of his resignation. Bill English is currently running at a higher favourability rating than John Key finished with and National’s vote appears to be holding.  The result of the September 23 election may deliver the final verdict.

[Note on methodology: most results outlined are from questions included in UMR’s fortnightly telephone omnibus survey. This is a survey of a nationally representative sample of 750 New Zealanders, 18 years plus. Some results, as specified, are from questions included in UMR’s monthly online omnibus survey. This is a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1000 New Zealanders 18 years plus.]

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