Efeso Collins gets a hoped-for photo op when Jacinda Ardern visits his campaign phone bank in West Auckland. Photo: Facebook

Who can pull out a decisive late move – will celebrity endorsements be enough, will thousands of phone calls get voters off their couches, or will the biggest budget prevail?

With three and a half days of voting to go, Efeso Collins’ campaign for the Auckland mayoralty is throwing the electoral kitchen sink into overwhelming his poll-leading opponent Wayne Brown.

Brown meanwhile is eschewing the frippery of celebrity endorsements or going out in search of crowds and babies to kiss to cement the lead he built in the final public polls of the campaign.

Brown has that polling momentum, built up through the previous six weeks as first Leo Molloy and then Viv Beck among his centre-right competitors withdrew  – and he has money to spend, primarily on targeted and online advertising.

He has succeeded in being seen as the person to shake up the establishment, do something about congestion and disruption and never ending works, and cut council spending.

Brown led 34 percent to 29 percent among decided voters in a TVNZ Q&A poll issued 10 days ago and his trend has been upward in other polling as well.

He evidently hasn’t asked for help directly from the National Party aligned Communities & Residents (C&R) group, which previously backed Beck.

Collins has the political machine that is Labour, the Greens and the City Vision operation across Auckland.

Can his organisation, which is promoting big name endorsements including Tuesday’s wheeling out of the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to visit a Collins’ phone bank, generate enough votes to keep the mayoralty with the centre-left after four terms of Phil Goff and Len Brown?

Ardern posted on social media a picture of herself with the candidate, and another of her voting for him. She singled out his “awesome team of volunteers … together they’ve been campaigning for many of the same things we’ve been.”

Collins’ team on Tuesday also welcomed a social media endorsement from singer Lorde, and a business-based backing from entrepreneur Derek Handley.

Collins’ campaign has publicised its volunteer teams phoning up to 5000 people last weekend and working the phones again in front of the PM.

Wayne Brown with a potential voter at a campaign debate.  Photo: Newsroom

The modest voter turnout so far – at 19.8 overall it is falling away from the 22.6 percent at the same point in 2019 and well off the 24.4 percent of 2016 – would often be seen as an extra challenge for the left candidate. 

The ward by ward figures do show comparatively higher returns in more affluent or rural districts such as Ōrakei or Rodney and lower responses in the south (Ōtara, Manurewa) and places like Henderson-Massey and Maungakiekie-Tamaki. 

A relatively low turnout might be something a candidate with an effective party machine behind him could use to his advantage.

The campaign veterans’ views

Former Alliance member, regional chair and Auckland Council member Mike Lee, who is standing for the council in Waitematā and Gulf as an independent (but with the rare support of the centre-right’s C&R), says Collins has a possible edge in having the party organisations behind him.

“The conventional wisdom would suggest [low turnout] is not good, maybe, for Efeso,” Lee told Newsroom.

“But also when you have very low turnouts there are techniques. The big political parties know how to work those and go through the electoral roll and databases and get people to vote. Flipping a small number of votes could change things.”

Political commentator and unionist Matt McCarten, who was campaign manager for Leo Molloy, agreed a low turnout would benefit Collins and a high turnout would be in Brown’s favour.

“The Labour and Greens teams on the ground cannot be underestimated. Efeso is standing on the shoulders of 150 candidates running for the council and local boards.”

In this phase of a campaign, time for persuading was over and it was all about getting people to vote.

McCarten reckons in Auckland about a third vote, a third want to vote but don’t know how or it’s too hard, and a third just wouldn’t vote.  

He believed people had basically worked out Brown was for the blue side, so he would get the National voters, and would already have many in the bag. Similarly, Collins would have many deep red voters and needed to focus on getting out a broader group. 

People overestimated the value of votes to be mined from south Auckland or from Pasifika, he said. “There’s more votes to be had from Howick than most of south Auckland..”

Brown had no machine on the ground, but quite a sophisticated team in social media and was spending his money.

McCarten didn’t disregard ‘celebrity’ endorsements, saying those people would not persuade people to change their vote but could remind them to get out and vote.

He has already voted for Collins, the man who led his former candidate Leo Molloy throughout the early phases of the campaign.

“I’m tribal,” he said. “I’m voting for Efeso. It’s no contest in my mind. Efeso is more affable.

“My support for Leo was because I thought they needed someone to shake things up, someone as a mayor to take on the elites and bureaucrats. And of the two left, I think Efeso is more of an Auckland mayor.”

C&R president Kit Parkinson said the closeness of the mayoral race this time could yet lift final voter turnout.

But he questioned the main candidates’ campaigns already removing roadside signs as early as Tuesday, with three days before they must be out of voters’ sight.

C&R believed its 50-plus council and local board candidates would benefit from a swing towards sensible spending and against the incumbent council bodies, and what had been a strong social media play.

Parkinson believed, with independents and allies, the centre-right could reach as many as 14 of the 20 council seats on offer, meaning whomever of Collins or Brown prevailed in the mayoral race they would face a different type of governing body than that experienced by Phil Goff.

Former Labour Party president Mike Williams, who first ran a campaign in 1983 for Cath Tizard when she defeated Colin Kay for the city mayoralty, felt Brown had a slight advantage going into this campaign’s last days.

“It just depends on turnout now. If Labour and the Greens can turn out their vote, a low poll overall won’t necessarily make things difficult for them.”

Unlike McCarten, he believed Collins needed to keep targeting his home turf of south Auckland, urging the churches to encourage Pasifika to vote.

Conversely, Brown needed “to desperately get a hold of the National Party’s email list. They have more reliable voters in local body elections.”

Labour was clearly providing its database to Collins, which was an advantage. “I’ve received things from him that come from that database. The Labour machine has even targeted me, and even offered to come and pick up my vote and deliver it.”

The PM’s blessing

That machine was in gear this afternoon as Ardern visited a Collins phone bank in Henderson this afternoon to offer her support for the mayoral candidate.

A number of CityVision candidates were on hand to hear the Prime Minister confirm her support, a day after an Instagram post backing Wellington centre-left candidate Paul Eagle.

Collins said he was stoked to have the endorsement, which he said would show Aucklanders that he stands for values he shares with the Prime Minister.

“I’m quite honoured and humbled by her being able to join us in the phone bank,” he said. “It shows everyone in Auckland the values that drive us: we’re all about being inclusive, being deliberate in the kind of vision we set for the city, climate resilient… Her standing with us is reminding everyone that we are endorsed by the Labour Party, we have very similar values and principles and that’s what’s going to drive us to achieve a vision for Auckland.”

Ardern put her vote for Collins in a ballot box heading to the new offices of community lawyer Henderson-Massey Local Board member Brooke Loader, where a rolodex of CityVision candidates such as Shane Henderson and Red Tsounga turned up to hear the Prime Minister speak.

With just a matter of days before voting closes, Collins’ campaign is putting all its energy into the final sprint. He said there were between 50 and 100 people at a phone bank in Penrose over the weekend, and expects 20 to 30 at another on Tuesday night.

The focus is on people who have voted before who tend to vote left, Collins said, and on areas like Henderson, Sunnyvale, Mt Roskill and parts south. Yesterday he was door knocking in Papatoetoe, and before that he hit the streets of Birkenhead.

“I actually love phone banking,” he said. “My favourite part of the campaign is phone banking and door knocking.”

As for Saturday: “I’m really excited,” Collins said. “I’ll be pulling out my gin and tonic or two or possibly more, but irrespective of the result that’s an opportunity to say thank you to the team and of course to my own family who have made massive sacrifices to come on this journey.”

Back to the well

Over in the Wayne Brown camp, the focus is on consolidating networks the former Far North mayor already reached out to on the campaign trail.

Ben Thomas, press secretary for Brown, said at this point in the campaign the goal was to go back to networks and associations previously pitched.

“Postal votes have gone out, so we’re not hunting for new markets or anything. When we campaigned, Wayne spent a lot of time going back to the supporters, to touch base with where he’s had support and saying ‘tell your family and friends, has everyone voted?’”

Thomas says in a low turnout election, as early numbers suggest is the case, it’s important for the campaign to focus on places where Brown has already put in the work.

Advice from Auckland Council and NZ Post is to have posted completed ballots by Tuesday to ensure they are counted, although special votes and booths in Countdowns, libraries and community centres are still in play.

Footnote: Celebrity endorsements up until Tuesday evening

Efeso Collins:

– Lorde

– Jacinda Ardern

– Sir Bob Harvey

– Dick Hubbard

– Philip Mills

– David Farrier

– Guy Williams

– Lucy Lawless

– Oscar Kightley

– Penny Hulse

– David Tua

– Tau Henare

– Derek Handley

Wayne Brown (who said last week: ‘”Why would I want them?” and “I’ve not had the need to get celebrities to try and rescue me…”) 

– Leo Molloy

– Judith Collins

– Dame Naida Glavish

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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