State of the Race

Three weeks before the elections the state of the race is still quite vague. The parties are starting up their campaign, but the polls aren’t moving a lot. What’s going on?

The polls

The polls haven’t changed a lot since late last year. Sure, parties win or lose a few seats with every new poll, but in general they lose or win those seats back in the next poll. It seems as if the voters aren’t really interested in the elections yet.

That’s partly due to the fact that many voters just don’t know what they’re going to vote yet — and if you reply “Don’t know” to a poll your vote is not counted at all. Still, we should expect at least some of those voters to turn out on 15th of March. But which ones?

Despite all that, the amount of stability in the polls is remarkable. Usually, one party or the other manages to win a news cycle and is rewarded with a few virtual seats in a poll, or another party has a problem and is punished by the loss of some virtual seats. That isn’t really happening yet this time around.

In fact, the polls are showing only two trends: the PVV started on a downward slide (which may end next week, for all I know), and the past two months have seen GL inching upward ever so slowly. The rest of the movements are fluff.

There was one interesting point in this week’s Peil.nl poll. It showed the current state of the race in four age classes (18-35, 36-49, 50-64, and 65+), which is mildly interesting though not really surprising.

It turns out that GL and D66 are performing better with younger voters, PvdA, CDA, and especially 50Plus better with older voters, while the rest has a more complicated relation to age. PVV and VVD both peak in the 35-49 age bracket, while the SP does so in the 50-64 bracket. For all these three parties the 18-35 bracket is their worst.

GL has always been popular among younger voters, and PvdA and CDA are suffering from an aging electorate. As to 50Plus, of course it scores badly with those under 50. The fact that D66 is popular among younger voters is the only mildly surprising fact here — and it’s not a huge surprise, either.

Wilders going down

Anyway, the last two weeks has seen Wilders going down — slightly, but a little more than the margin of error. The reasons aren’t all that clear, though I read three interesting theories. The first says that the example of the Great Populist Trump in the US is making voters skittish: sure, they’d like to vote against the political class as a whole, but not to the point where we’d get a Trump-like chaotic government. (One wonders to what extent the same will happen to Le Pen in France and the AfD in Germany.)

And the PVV doesn’t seem to have the right people to run the country. In the Dutch system the party leader is important, but not overwhelmingly so. If Wilders were to become prime minister he’d need a few other ministers, as well as a parliamentary leader for the PVV. Right now there aren’t any candidates.

That’s mostly Wilders’s own fault: he doesn’t tolerate any strong characters apart from himself. A few of the other PVV MPs, notably Dion Graus, have acquired some national notoriety (in his case by the aborted “guinea pig” animal crualty police force, as well as his penchant to hit bartenders who refuse him more drinks), but the PVV bench is shallow.

The second theory revolves around VVD leader and prime minister Rutte openly excluding any VVD/PVV cooperation, which he combined with some right-wing law-and-order, mildly anti-immigrant sentiment. His message to populist voters was that the VVD was sympathetic to them, and a vote for the PVV would be wasted since it wasn’t going to enter the new coalition anyway. Ergo: they should vote VVD.

The theory holds that, while Rutte’s strategy is working and some PVV voters are moving to the VVD, the VVD’s move to the right is alienating moderate voters, who are moving to D66 and CDA. Thus the VVD remains at about the same number of seats. That’s possible, though the fact that D66 and the CDA hardly grew in the past few weeks argues against it.

The third theory is that the Teeven affair has shocked confidence in Rutte (while, I assume, his attack on the PVV still succeeded). Thus the VVD fails to profit from the PVV’s slow slide down.

Anyway, please remember the fundamental question: even if Wilders wins, who’s going to form a coalition with him? Right now the answer seems to be SGP and 50Plus, both of which will remain (well) below 10 seats and won’t give him a majority. Only if VVD and CDA break their promise of excluding Wilders does he stand a chance to become the next prime minister. It’s possible, but far from certain.

Wilders skips debates

It turns out there will also be an RTL debate on 5 March between the leaders of the eight largest parties. I only heard of it because Wilders withdrew; nominally because RTL interviewed his brother Paul, who is a convinced PVV opponent, but still loves his little brother Geert. Geert felt RTL involving his family in election news was a privacy-breaking offence — though everyone is fairly certain he didn’t want to participate in the debates and he was just looking for a reason to withdraw.

For Wilders, that means he’ll only feature in the NOS debates on 13 and 14 March, the two days before the elections. Is it wise of him to skip the debates and concentrate his campaign on Twitter?

Some say he’s doing the right thing here. He has a solid base of core supporters who will vote for him no matter what, and they don’t need debates. Besides, debates are uncertain affairs; it could always be that one of the other party leaders lands a succesful attack.

On the other hand, Wilders’s core may be too small. I read somewhere (sorry, can’t find link) that 7% of the total electorate is now determined to vote Wilders. This translates to about 10-11 seats; far less than the 25-27 seats the polls now point to. The rest of these seats will have to come from floating voters who may be convinced to vote Wilders, or may go to the VVD or SP. It would be useful if Wilders participated in the debate in order to reach those voters.

Anyway, Wilders is Out on 5th of March. Since RTL still wants eight party leaders a new one had to be invited to join VVD, CDA, D66, GL, PvdA, SP, and 50Plus. Numerically this ought to be the CU, but since the debate is going to take place on a Sunday CU leader Segers bowed out, and the spot is instead going to go to PvdD leader Thieme. That’s an unexpected bonus for the animal-rights party.

The left

On the left, meanwhile, little is happening. The left block as a whole is still at an historically low level (about 54-57 seats), while no single left-wing party has clearly taken the lead. Usually, the left wins between 62-69 seats, and the PvdA is clearly the largest party.

I’m still kind-of expecting left-wing voters who are currently hesitating to come home, but the question is how many of them will do so. We’ll know more after the debates; maybe that’s what they need in order to make up their minds and pick a party to vote for.

Meanwhile, of the left-wing parties GL is slowly inching upward, while the other three are essentially stable. This is important not only for the total number of left-wing seats, but also for the question who is going to be the left’s prime-minister candidate. Right now it seems that’s going to be GL leader Klaver.

I talked a lot about the prime-minister race, which is a construct where the largest left-wing and the largest right-wing parties are fighting each other, not to win over each other’s voters, but to get other voters in their own block to switch from one of the smaller parties to them.

Rutte and Wilders attempted to create such a race between the two of them, but so far that attempt is failing. Voters clearly want a left-wing and a right-wing candidate, and not two right-wingers.

In the 2012 elections VVD and PvdA managed to start a prime-minister race succesfully. That led to both parties winning a lot of seats in the final weeks, but also to the VVD+PvdA coalition. That’s one of the curious side effects of the prime-minister race: the two winners could be forced to form a coalition with one another. In fact, in the previous prime-minister race in 2003 exactly the same happened, and a CDA+PvdA coalition ensued.

Not every election features a prime-minister race, though, and if I’m forced to make a snap judgement now I’d say 2017 will not feature one. Despite that, both Rutte and the left-wing leaders will attempt to create a race. The upcoming debate on Sunday will get us more clarity on the left-wing leaders. (Remember: Rutte and Wilders bowed out of this debate.)

Klaver under attack

It seems the right is getting nervous about Klaver. This week De Telegraaf, a right-wing newspaper somewhere between VVD and PVV best described as a very polite tabloid, accused him of touching up his resume, in particular the part where Klaver started his schooling at the lowest rung of the Dutch system and slowly worked his way up. Instead, he seems to have skipped one step in his climb — which doesn’t invalidate the story altogether, although Klaver may have exaggerated a little. See it as a kind of Dutch from rags to riches story, where the rags were slightly less raggy than originally claimed.

It is unclear which voters De Telegraaf attempted to influence. Its readers are unlikely to vote GL, and although the article was mentioned elsewhere, it doesn’t seem to have gained a life of its own. The right feels it’s important to attack Klaver — that’s about the only lesson we can draw from this. And that, in turn, may actually help the GL leader to become the main candidate on the left. Maybe De Telegraaf should have left well enough alone.

<— The Teeven affair | Small fry, week of 20/2 —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.

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