"It’s the party vote, stupid."

The flank parties are scooping up party support and leaving National and Labour with an oversupply of electorate support. Both are now trying to neutralise that.

You would expect some excess because the big old parties hold almost all the electorates, a lifetime of an electorate-only choice has ingrained voting habits and incumbents attract cross-party support that does not reflect true party loyalties. Nevertheless, in 1996 National’s two votes were almost identical. Labour’s electorate excess was 2.9 per cent.

In this campaign, however, averaging the most recent TV3 CM Research, Herald-DigiPoll and TV1 Colmar Brunton polls, Labour has been scoring 3.5 per cent more electorate than party support and National 2.8 per cent more.

Partly this stems from confusion about the two votes among people who lack the MMP designers’ elegant intellectualism. Some think they are required to split their votes. Some (including even a party worker, who attached a flank party billboard to his MP’s) think they serve their preferred big party best by boosting a coalition partner. Some people have confided to their MP that they will vote for a flank party because the MP is high on the list!

But the big parties’ electorate excess is also a factor of campaigning.

* First, the flank parties (ACT, the Alliance and the Greens) have tighter messages that hit the mark.

* Second, the big parties have not made sure their dominant campaigns are for the party votes. Electorate candidates’ egos have upstaged the party message on billboards.

This is more of a worry to Labour than National because too much of Alliance (and Green) scares middling voters away and smacks of mess, which voters do not want, even if the three together have a majority. Helen Clark switched tack to emphasise the party vote on Friday after a fraught strategy meeting. This week Labour will add a party message to those vacuous “boy” ads.

National, as its caucus last week showed, is now nervous about ACT. It has edged harder on crime and the treaty. Jenny Shipley and the advertising are intensifying focus on the party vote.

Both will push the party message on candidates’ billboards.

If they don’t turn the trends around, they are headed for the low thirties, most polls suggest. And that would mean whichever big party heads the next government would have to concede real influence to its flank coalition partner(s).