'Unlikely, but he's got a chance': Todd Muller's best path to becoming Prime Minister

With 100 sleeps until election day, politicians are being warned against leaving their campaigns to the last minute - with most Kiwis expected to have already cast their ballots by then.

While the election is scheduled for September 19, voting will actually begin on September 2 for Kiwis overseas and September 5 for those in the country. 

More than 1.24 million people went to the polls early in 2017 - 47 percent of all votes cast. That was up 72 percent on 2017 and 270 percent on 2011. 

"Over time, election campaigns are spreading out further and further," Victoria University political scientist Bryce Edwards told The AM Show on Thursday.

"Yes it's 100 days until we find out the results and we actually have polling day, but it's only 86 days until we start doing advance voting. Anyone can vote in 86 days' time, and I think most New Zealanders will this year vote before polling day, for the first time."

Advance voting may start even earlier than the planned date of Saturday, September 5, to reduce congestion - particularly if COVID-19 makes a comeback. 

Dr Edwards expects Labour to run a presidential-style campaign focused on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose poll ratings are stratospheric after her handling of the pandemic crisis.

"She's a great crisis manager, a great communicator and we're seeing the polls recognise that. National's task is to say this shouldn't be a presidential campaign and it should be our team versus their team.

"Good luck to them, because that's going to be a hard message to push because this will be a presidential-style campaign for Labour. They will be pushing Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson as well. It's a winning formula.

"The problem is if they look too arrogant, if they look too complacent - incumbent Governments do that when they get high in the polls, and they trip up."

Opposition leader Todd Muller didn't even register in Newshub's latest poll, which was conducted less than a month ago - when Simon Bridges led the party and Muller was still a relatively unknown backbencher.

Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

Dr Edwards says Muller can't be written off just yet - as the health crisis winds down and Ardern gets less screen time, voters will start to remember the country's other, long-running issues. 

"It can't just be about personalities and Jacinda Ardern. They really do have to defend their record on housing, on inequality, on the things that they promised. It's not just about the health crisis anymore...  It's certainly possible [Muller can win]. I think it's unlikely, but he's got a chance. Things change quickly at the moment in global politics. So no, don't rule him out. It's certainly possible." 

Todd Muller.
Todd Muller. Photo credit: Getty

Whatever happens, Dr Edwards expects a campaign unlike any other in recent memory.

"We're living in a world of flux at the moment. Who would have expected any of this to happen? We're going into this campaign after this global crisis that has affected every New Zealander; we've got this extremely popular Prime Minister and leader; a new face for the Opposition; we've got two minor parties struggling for survival; an economic crisis looming. Everything is there for a very strong, colourful campaign. People are expecting a lot from this campaign - they want big ideas, they want a contest of ideas. So I think the Government are going to be challenged by all of that."