The US presidential election may still be extremely close, but one thing is clear: those pundits and pollsters who predicted Trump was in no position to win will be going back to the drawing board.
In any case, “Trumpism” is unlikely to disappear even after he’s gone — including in New Zealand.
Hardcore Trump supporters in the US may make up as few as 12% of America’s registered voters. But polls have consistently underestimated Trump’s numbers compared with actual election results.
The Real Clear Politics pre-election poll average had Joe Biden up by 7.2 points nationally, but as of November 5 he led by only 2.1 points. Perhaps there really is a “hidden Trump vote”.
Meanwhile in New Zealand, with Jacinda Ardern in charge of the country’s most diverse cabinet ever, the prospect of a Trump-like leader might seem remote. However, in online surveys conducted by Stuff.co.nz and Massey University in 2017 and 2020, we found a significant minority in support of Trump.
Kiwis for Trump
In mid-2017, 13% of respondents said they would have voted for Trump had they been able to, compared to a scientifically sampled poll in mid-2016 that found 9% support for Trump.
How to explain the difference? Trump’s victory in November 2016 may have boosted that support slightly. The Stuff/Massey survey is reader-initiated and non-representative, and may have over-represented disaffected conservatives. Or people may be more willing to indicate support for Trump online than by phone.
Nonetheless, there was a measurable level of support for Trump in New Zealand.
In the mid-2020 survey, we asked respondents if they hoped Trump would win or lose in the November election. This time, 11% said they hoped he would win (after weighting for gender due to the sample having a male bias of 61.2%).
Read more: An embarrassing failure for election pollsters
The Stuff/Massey survey sample also had a conservative bias, as 36.8% said they supported National — above where the party was polling at the time, and well above its election night result of 26.8%.
But let’s say roughly one in ten New Zealanders is a Trump supporter. Under New Zealand’s electoral system, that’s well above the threshold of 5% for a party to win parliamentary seats.
Of the 55,147 who answered the question in the mid-2020 survey, 6,833 said they hoped Trump would win. So, who are these Kiwi Trumpers? And what do they really think?
Even demographic spread
They are evenly spread across age-groups, but slightly higher (15.4%) in the 18-24 range. This may reflect a known phenomenon in which populist leaders boost young people’s satisfaction with democracy — or, to put it another way, help to reverse the trend towards political disengagement in democracies.
Kiwi men are more than twice as likely to support Trump than women — a much wider gender gap than was found in the US after the 2016 election.
Read more: US election: why democratic legitimacy remains at stake
Kiwi Trumpers are distributed evenly across lower and middle income brackets, and support declines only slightly in the upper income brackets.
Perhaps surprisingly, 15.6% of Pasifika respondents and 20% of those who ticked the “gender-diverse” box hoped Trump would win — above the overall 11% result.
A whopping 92% of the Kiwi Trumpers said we should leave statues of figures from our colonial past where they are, compared to the 49.8% of those who hoped Trump would lose.
National is the preferred party
Very few Kiwi Trumpers identified with arch-populist Winston Peters, however. Only 4.9% of them said he is the party leader they felt closest to, perhaps because of his coalition with Labour after the 2017 election. They were more attached to National’s Judith Collins (46.6%) and ACT Party leader David Seymour (30.2%).
Only 20% of National supporters overall said they hoped Trump would win. But this sub-group of National supporters made up 56% of the entire cohort of Kiwi Trumpers. A further 23% of Kiwi Trumpers supported ACT. So, the National Party is the preferred party of the Kiwi Trumper.
The far-right New Conservative Party’s supporters were only 1.2% of our sample, and that party won only 1.5% of the vote at the October election. But a clear majority of them (69%) supported Trump.
Read more: Can New Zealand's most diverse ever cabinet improve representation of women and minorities in general?
In general, Kiwi Trumpers see society as more discontented, and politicians as less trustworthy, than the average New Zealander.
Some 47.5% of the Trump supporters endorsed conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 virus. For them, it was either “an invention of shadowy forces that want to control us” (11%) or “a biological weapon created by one of the world’s super-powers” (35.5%).
Only 7.7% of Trump opponents ticked either of those statements. And, overall, 85.8% of the sample agreed that the virus came from a natural source.
Moreover, only 11.7% of Trump supporters agreed the New Zealand government was taking the right approach to dealing with the economic impact of COVID-19, while 62% of Trump opponents agreed.
And 84% of the Kiwi Trumpers preferred the government take a “cautious and sceptical” approach to climate change, compared with 23.8% of opponents.
Could a Trump emerge in NZ?
Unsurprisingly, 54.6% of Kiwi Trumpers were in favour of New Zealand developing a closer alignment with the USA, compared with only 6.2% of Trump opponents. The vast majority (80.9%) of survey respondents preferred that New Zealand aim for greater independence from both the USA and China.
National’s Judith Collins made favourable comments about Trump during a pre-election debate, perhaps aware of support for him within her base.
Read more: A Biden presidency might be better for NZ, but the big foreign policy challenges won't disappear with Trump
Suppose, then, that the National Party chose as leader a Trump-like conservative “non-politician” — someone who divided rather than united, and who put economic liberty ahead of health and human lives.
Bearing in mind that this inference is based on a non-scientific survey, he or she could energise perhaps an existing base of one-fifth of National’s supporters, while winning over others from parties further to the right.
Traditional conservatives and centre-right liberals within National would be aghast. But, desperate to change the government, they may have nowhere else to turn.
Then again, it could all end badly. Those voters who switched from National to Labour in 2020 may not want to switch back. And in New Zealand politics, the winning party is the one that wins those centrist voters.