A document drawn up by Labour's polling company delivers a brutal assessment of the public's impression of National leader Simon Bridges.
Stuff has obtained a slide presentation which UMR, which has long been used by Labour for its private internal polling, sent to "ten or so" subscribers.
UMR is a private company which undertakes research for a number of clients, but is best known for its long association with Labour.
The 12-page presentation details polling on party popularity, Bridges' low net favourability and whether the country is on the right or wrong track.
A word cloud, which UMR says was drawn from one-word answers given by a representative group, drawn from a sample size of 1000, gives a highly unflattering glimpse into perceptions of Bridges.
"Untrustworthy" is the largest word on the slide, meaning UMR recorded it as the most common response when members of the public were asked to describe Bridges.
Virtually all of the responses were negative, according to the document.
The way the document has been shared has led to claims that polling is now increasingly being used as an attack weapon.
Polling experts and political staffers agreed that, at a minimum, any document drawn from political research had to be treated on the assumption that it would probably become public if it was sent out beyond a small, trusted circle.
David Farrar, the principal at Curia Research, National's polling company, said sending the material to corporate clients made it likely it would quickly become public.
"They wanted this to get out there, but they didn't want Labour to release it," Farrar, who also runs Kiwiblog, a website which is largely sympathetic to the National Party.
Labour has distanced itself from the document and refused to say whether it approved or influenced what UMR released.
A spokesman said the Labour Party "doesn't commission word clouds" as part of its regular polling.
"As it wasn't our research we don't have any comment on it."
In a statement, National appeared to question the accuracy of UMR.
"You would never expect a Labour Party poll to be positive about the Leader of the Opposition. Labour's polling consistently inflates Labour's support. For example, UMR polling had Labour only 2 per cent behind in the Northcote by-election, yet National won by almost six points," a spokesman for the National Party said.
"The Prime Minister also said on the eve of the 2017 election that Labour was only one point behind National but National outpolled Labour by almost eight points on election day," the spokesman added, pointing to the latest TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll, "which shows support for National strengthening under the leadership of Simon Bridges, with the support of 46 per cent of New Zealanders."
UMR chief executive David Talbot defended the accuracy of the company's research and said while the party preferred that the research not become public, he acknowledged this was always a risk.
On previous occasions when UMR documents had become public, it tended to have been negative for the Labour Party, Talbot said. "It goes both ways."
'One word to describe Simon Bridges'
The UMR document was sent in late November, but uses poll results drawn from October, a period when former National MP Jami-Lee Ross' attacks on the party were dominating the headlines.
It shows that Bridges' net favourability - the difference between those who have a positive impression and a negative one - was negative 31 per cent, the lowest of any leader since Jenny Shipley, around the time that National was removed from office in 1999.
If an election were to be held tomorrow, Labour was likely to win the support of 46 per cent, ahead of National's 37 per cent.
That figure is in sharp contrast to the most recent public poll by Colmar Brunton for TVNZ, which had National on 46 per cent, ahead of Labour on 43 per cent.
But the unusual element of the document is the inclusion of word clouds, for both Bridges and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Terms used for Bridges are almost universally negative, while for Ardern, who has a strong net positive favourability rating, they are almost entirely positive.
UMR chief executive David Talbot said the word cloud tended to only be used "internally", but the company had decided to include it into a presentation he delivered to clients because the message was "striking".
However Talbot believed the visualisation could be directly linked to any political figure with such low favourability, such as Bridges being rated as preferred prime minister by just 7 per cent of the public in the Colmar Brunton poll, one point ahead of Judith Collins.
"That's just borne out by those [favourability] numbers. We've never had, I don't think, an Opposition leader in such a net negative space," Talbot said, adding that a string of unsuccessful Labour leaders had not seen such low numbers.
"We never saw that for [Phil] Goff, we never saw that for [David] Cunliffe, we never saw that for [Andrew] Little.
"You get a lot of 'unsures' and 'don't knows', but not that almost vitriolic stuff that you've got there.
"I'm not having a crack at the guy [Bridges], Talbot said. "I've never met him and I don't know him, but clearly, people are having a sort of quite deep negative emotional reaction to him."
While party commissioned research is always open to accusations of bias, Talbot defended the finding.
"We are a company that lives or dies by the robustness of our methodology, and I would challenge anybody to do the same thing" and see the results, Talbot said.
"I don't think there's any denying, when someone's on 7 per cent [preferred Prime Minister] or negative net 40 [per cent] on our polling, that the word cloud's gonna look like a disaster."
Talbot said UMR usually asked clients not to pass on the research, but he acknowledged that once it was released beyond a small circle this was always a risk.
Labour's relationship with UMR is slightly more distant than National's with Curia, in that UMR undertakes political polling beyond what Labour pays for.
However the relationship is still close. Talbot is a former Labour Party candidate and staffer.
When Finance Minister Grant Robertson caused controversy by speaking at two $600-a-head dinners at exclusive clubs in Wellington and Auckland this year, attended by business figures and lobbyists, Talbot gave presentations at the same event
The 'weaponising' of polling
Farrar, a former National Party staffer, said documents such as word clouds were "highly sensitive stuff" and were usually kept close by political parties.
"If you include stuff like that [in materials sent] to clients, that can only be because you want it to get out."
A number of National commentators have speculated that if Labour was not threatened by Bridges, they would not attack him.
"They want to damage Simon [Bridges], but the thing is, if you were so convinced he was unelectable, you actually wouldn't do that," Farrar said.
"I can recall conversations during the third term of the [John] Key [National] Government, where people talked about how 'we don't want to go too hard on [former Labour leader Andrew] Little, because we don't want to tip him out."
Farrar said the document was "almost a weaponising" of polling, used strategically to attack opponents.
"Usually, private polling information is used to help you make good decisions, not to try and score points in the media."
Political commentator Bryce Edwards said both Labour and National appeared to be increasingly using private polling as a weapon.
"Traditionally it seems that they used these more for unofficial briefings of political journalists as backgrounder material," Edwards said.
"But it's taken a step forward these days, with the media publishing information about these internal polls."
Edwards said much less was known about the polling techniques used by UMR or Curia than the likes of Colmar Brunton, making it harder to trust the research.
Phil Quin, a former Labour staffer and political commentator, said the existence of the word cloud was not unusual, but releasing it was.
"I guess they want to kick off the BBQ season with people chatting about Simon Bridges' shortcomings," Quin said.
"The risk is that it becomes about dirty politics, undermining the PM's 'kindness' ethos, which is valuable political capital to put at risk".
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