While National has held Northcote since 2005, there's every indication that this time around it could switch hands back to Labour. With the Key/English era of National well and truly over, National faces an uphill battle to retain Northcote.
The key to victory in any by-election is maximising turnout by your own supporters. By-elections simply don't attract the same level of turnout as a General Election. In the nine by-elections in the past decade turnout has averaged 58% of what it was at the proceeding General Election. That's a massive drop in voter numbers and illustrates just what a difference a successful get out the vote campaign can do for a by-election. For interests sake the lowest turnout was the Mt Albert non-competition of 2017 where turnout was only 38% of what it had been in 2014, while the highest was Northland's 2015 by-election where 84% of voters from 2014 turned out.
This brings us to National's first big hurdle - getting its supporters out to vote. There's a couple of things that could dampen turnout for National. The first is supporters understandable sitting on the fence and waiting to see how National's new leadership team performs and what direction they take National in. After the successful Key/English years this is an entirely reasonable position for supporters to take, as the National Party of 2018 onwards simply can't sit on its laurels and expect warm fuzzy feelings of the Key/English era to carry them forward. Labour was somewhat guilty of that during Goff's leadership, and it's important National learns from that experience.
There's no easy way for National to earn that support other than getting runs on the board in terms of holding the Government to account and producing new ambitious policies themselves. The by-election, which seems like to hit shortly after Budget 2018, will make that latter part of the equation difficult, as Labour will have it's big set piece of the year to talk about, and National will need to have a credible alternative in place as well as acknowledging any good points in Labour's Budget. National can't be the "No" opposition party that Labour was for so long.
None of this is to say that Simon Bridges and his front bench can't secure that support, I definitely think that they're able to. But securing it within such a short time frame of becoming leader is going to be tough. That being said they've been helped by the Government's ongoing run of bad headlines which is now into its third week thanks to Clare Curran and Jenny Marcroft.
The other issue that will hit National in terms of turnout is largely dependent on who their candidate is. Reports today suggest that upwards of 10 people are potentially looking at seeking the Northcote nomination. There's rumours that a few centre-right local board politicians are looking at contesting the nomination, and speculation that there may be at least one possible contender returning from overseas, and a former mayoral candidate putting their names forward too. There's also the rumour that Air New Zealand's CEO Christopher Luxon might seek the nomination.
There's merit in either approach - either a local body politician or a high profile candidate like Luxon. A local body politician has the benefit of already being immersed in local issues, and already likely having networks in the local party and community that they can draw on during a campaign. Conversely, a high profile candidate like Luxon could be exactly what National needs to combat the hugely popular appeal of Jacinda Ardern that Labour will undoubtedly use to maximum effect in the by-election.
There's also risks in both approaches too. At a local body level the centre-right hasn't exactly covered itself in glory in recent memory with its electoral success. The conflict between competing centre-right tickets didn't help the overall cause in 2016. That failure has been the source of much debate within the National Party about whether the party should set up its own local body ticket to compete with Labour and create a conveyor belt of future MPs too. That's not to say that some of the National Party aligned local body politicians couldn't do a great job as MP for Northcote, but I simply don't know enough about any of them outside of the bigger picture of the 2016 campaign to comment further.
The high profile candidate approach from National could also look desperate too. High profile candidates either go one of two ways - be a fantastic success like John Key was, or ultimately end up being cringe-worthy like Don Brash has ended up being for the right (despite his near success in 2005). From what I've seen of Christopher Luxon it seems more likely he'd follow in John Key's footsteps, rather than follow the Brash burn bright but briefly approach. Luxon has had a pretty successful career at Air New Zealand, and would be able to hit the ground running in terms of the media commitments required of candidates, but it's harder to know how he'll relate to voters on the ground and the gruelling ground nature of day-to-day campaigning. He'll have experience dealing with a wide range of people at Air New Zealand, but being a candidate is a world apart from being the CEO of our national carrier.
Much like Labour, National should be able to deploy a fairly strong ground team to knock on doors, deliver pamphlets put up hoardings, call voters, and do all the usual campaign 101 things that keep campaigns working. In this regard the Young Nats in Auckland have excelled in recent campaigns of putting in the hard yards.
National will also benefit to some extent from Labour and New Zealand First's anti-Asian approach. With Northcote have twice the rate of people identifying as coming from an Asian background that New Zealand, National will be able to use this as an issue to drive people away from voting for the Labour candidate. As much as Labour and New Zealand First will claim their policies are about overseas people, if you read any of the reaction to Labour's "Chinese-sounding surnames" debacle of a couple of years ago you'll know how many Asian-Kiwis coped racial abuse stemming from that.
Another challenge for National is that at this point Northcote looks like it might be their first by-election without Steven Joyce, whose reputation as campaign chair is well deserved. How that might play out in terms of what unfolds in Northcote is hard to tell. Joyce, living in Albany, would have been as well placed as anyone to know first-hand what issues would and wouldn't motivate voters in Northcote. If National can get him involved in some sort of advisory capacity it will be a big help for them, though at the same time they do need to start blooding a new generation of campaign managers and campaign chairs to lead the party into the future.
The other issue National faces is that Northcote, as a bellweather seat, has shown a habit of generally voting where the largest party support is. If we went off the 2017 election results National would be a shoo-in for Northcote. However a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, with Bill English leaving and Simon Bridges taking over. The dampening impact of the end of the Key/English era can't be underestimated, and National will need to work overtime to mitigate that effect alone. Likewise with recent political polls showing Labour's support in the high 40s, and National's lurking around the mid to low 40s, my calculations have National holding a 4.5 to 5.5 percentage point advantage, and that's without taking into account the recent leadership change.
National also can't break out the cheque book in quite the same way Labour can with regards to policies. Not only are we two and a half years away from the next election, meaning it's hard to promise things that you can't credibly deliver until virtually a full Parliamentary term away, but National has had a mixed bag with those types of by-election sweeteners in the past. It also doesn't suit National's narrative that it's not just about how much a government spends, but what results they get from that spending.
One thing that is in National's favour is that regardless of whether New Zealand First runs a candidate they've probably already bled any potential National supporters from their voters back to National in annoyance over Winston Peters going with Labour. ACT also seems unlikely to take many votes from National in the seat either.
While National holds a slight advantage when looking at Northcote historically, the ongoing strong popularity of Jacinda Ardern personally, and National's own leadership change are going to make it a challenging proposition for National to win the seat again. And I say win here quite purposefully. It's not about National retaining Northcote. We're not talking about an incumbent justifying why they should still be MP. We're facing the situation where a brand new candidate needs to win the support of the Northcote community to take up that leadership role for them, and that means winning each and every vote from the ground up.