Election17: The anxiety election

8:53 pm on 21 September 2017

First Person - In New Plymouth, I set off my wipers round every corner. In Hamilton, I grappled fruitlessly with the fuel cap. Near Queenstown, I barrelled down Cardrona Peak, headlights on full, no idea how to dip them.

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Photo: RNZ

Each time I wrestled a different rental car, tearing from one campaign stop to the next, mentally scripting the next news update, a sheen on my brow, a cheese scone bouncing on the back seat.

If 2014 was a fever dream, 2017's all anxiety.

Remember the lunacy of three years ago? That series of madcap spectacles? Kim Dotcom, storming into insignificance. Colin Craig, all limbs, splayed in long grass. And - whisper it faintly - dirty politics.

It was the most outlandish campaign I'd ever report on, people told me.

Then I moved to the UK and witnessed Russell Brand break democracy. I covered Brexit with its bumbling cast of BoJo and Nigel and Submarine May. I watched Trump from afar, but never quite far enough.

And then I came home.

I was promised, at last, a "regular" election. A policy-driven plod to the finish line. I was promised normality.

Then Metiria fessed up and the Greens soared and Labour plummeted and Andrew resigned and Jacinda descended from on high and Labour soared and the Greens plummeted and Metiria resigned and Peter resigned and the polls were volatile and telling and dramatic and devastating and the country ran clean out of Xanax.

With just days now left in it, stress is dripping off everyone.

Craig McCulloch, second from right, keeping sane with other political reporters on the campaign trail.

Craig McCulloch, second from right, keeping sane with other political reporters on the campaign trail. Photo: Supplied / Katie Bradford

Jacinda Ardern, tossed in the deep end with the weight of expectation round her ankles. Bill English, I'm sure, with visions of 2002 flashing before his eyes.

National launched attack ads, clung to the 'invisible' fiscal hole, questioned Labour's plans on income tax.

As they've slid from the high to the low to the medium 40s, the party retreated to the regions.

Bill keeps popping up in traditionally true blue country, a bid to shore up core support and win back those who've defected to New Zealand First.

From the beginning he has driven the idea of a "drag race", a First-Past-the-Post-esque showdown between National and Labour.

This week he went further, urging voters to "cut out the middleman", basically acknowledging a percentage point one way or the other could tip the election.

A perturbed Labour leader draws solace from the public.

A perturbed Labour leader draws solace from the public. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

In Blenheim, he finished every encounter with a handshake and a nervous inflection.

"I hope we have your support."

Labour's jitters are even more apparent. Has Jacinda-mania waned? Has its meteoric rise in the polls fallen just short, missed the moon, not even landing among the stardust?

Its supporters - not long ago landline-skeptics - have been jonesing for an update, any update, from their new dealer Colmar Brunton.

But most highs have a comedown - the latest poll is a bad trip which has them stressed and spinning.

Labour's tax backdown was driven by panic; they worried the vagueness of their tax policy was scaring off voters, that National's attacks were starting to stick.

And so - hearts pounding, chests tightening, stomachs churning - they flipped.

The celebrities have toddled out in support. One-time regulars at Green Party events - think Anika Moa, Robyn Malcolm - are suddenly popping up in red.

It's for the same reason Jacinda's pushing hard into the universities. She's relying on a youth-quake, like the one which hit the UK earlier this year.

Like the one which swept Jeremy Corbyn to a narrow defeat.

"This election will come down to turnout," Jacinda told reporters in New Plymouth, a hint of trepidation in her voice.

National Party leader Bill English hides it well but he's surely feeling the pinch.

National Party leader Bill English hides it well but he's surely feeling the pinch. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

The minor parties are fretting too. If New Zealand First seems calm, it's only in contrast to the Greens.

Both parties have been reduced to minnows by the major players. But while Winston Peters has a safety net in Northland, James Shaw faces an existential threat.

The Greens are frazzled and floundering, flirting with that 5 percent threshold. The threat of oblivion looms large.

They're not only short a leader; they're short their political director and chief of staff too.

The strategists abandoned ship shortly after Metiria's benefit blow-up and were never replaced.

Thousands of their supporters seem to have followed suit, the allure of a vibrant young female leader winning over those who used to "only date boys who vote Green".

Some left because Metiria stayed, others then because she left and others just because they like Jacinda.

James has tried to piggyback on Labour's surge, claiming a vote for the Greens is a vote for a Jacinda-led government.

In their latest ad, he implores supporters to "vote smart" before illustrating the decision by shuffling red and green apples.

Even Winston - the great survivor - will be feeling a bead of sweat on his forehead.

The latest polls have New Zealand First dancing just above 5 percent. And while he holds the Northland seat, no one really knows just how strong that grip is.

The numbers still have him in that most pivotal of spots - the supposed king-or-queen-maker.

But with such volatility, his greatest fear will still be keeping him up at night - that come 24 September, he might not be needed at all.

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