The ACT Party won a mere 13,075 votes in 2017, barely more than the joke parties. But in 2020 it won 219,031 votes. This 16-fold increase radically changed the composition of the ACT voting demographic.
The main reason for the massive increase in ACT support was wealthy, old white people abandoning the National Party, but not abandoning the right wing. The correlation between being of European descent and voting ACT in 2017 was not significant, at 0.17. By 2020 this correlation had leapt to 0.74, which means that ACT now has the whitest supporters of any registered party, even whiter than New Conservatives.
That these voters came predominantly from National is apparent when one looks at the strength of the correlation between voting National in 2020 and voting ACT in 2020: 0.92. This is much stronger than in 2017, when it was 0.61, or 2014, when it was 0.40. In 2020, ACT voters and National voters were basically the same sort of people.
In fact, the correlation between voting ACT in 2020 and voting National in 2020 is so strong that the two voting demographics are close to identical. There were also strong correlations between voting ACT in 2020 and voting for the other parties whose demographics are wealthy, old and white (i.e. enfranchised), such as New Conservative (0.68) and Sustainable NZ (0.54).
Unsurprisingly, then, there were strong negative correlations between voting ACT and voting for the young and brown parties, such as the Maori Party (-0.64) Vision NZ (-0.60) and ALCP (-0.48).
The ACT Party also got much older. In 2014, the correlation between median age and voting ACT was 0.02. By 2017, it had increased to 0.26. By 2020, it had increased to 0.54 – stronger than the correlation between median age and voting National that year.
Most notably, the correlation between voting ACT in 2017 and being aged 65+ was 0.11, but the correlations between voting ACT in 2020 and belonging to any age bracket above 65 were all at least 0.63. The ACT demographic of today is much, much older than the demographic of even a few years back. Whether this reflects a permanent shift or just a temporary change in sentiments remains to be seen.
The easy assumption up until now was that the ACT Party appealed to a younger, more educated and more liberal demographic than National. This assumption used to be accurate, but by 2020 it no longer was. The ACT Party got so many votes from core National supporters that the two voting blocs are barely distinguishable when it comes to age, race, education or wealth. Even the correlations between casting a special vote for Yes in the cannabis referendum
One of the main reasons for the increase in ACT support was their support of firearms rights. Many of the new ACT voters were rural firearms enthusiasts. This is evident from the fact that the correlation between living in an urban electorate and voting ACT switched from a significantly positive correlation in 2017 (0.37) to a borderline significantly negative correlation of -0.23 in 2020.
Fitting with the high level of rural support for ACT are the significant positive correlations of 0.39 between voting ACT in 2020 and voting Outdoors NZ Party in 2020, and of 0.43 between voting ACT in 2020 and working in agriculture, forestry or fishing. There were also positive correlations, if not significant ones, between voting ACT in 2020 and working in mining or construction.
The most striking correlation here is the one of -0.65 between voting ACT in 2020 and working in administration and support services. The reason for this is likely because ACT appeals mostly to those willing to take financial risks and to gamble, whereas the choice of administration and support services as an industry is usually made by those who like to play it safe.
That such a strongly historically urban party such as ACT might get more support from rural electorates than urban ones is striking, and speaks to the sense of betrayal that the right-leaning firearms community felt about National supporting restrictive firearms legislation. Almost all of these new, rural ACT voters will have been National voters in the previous election.
In several ways, the correlations between belonging to certain demographic categories and voting either ACT or National in 2020 are identical. Voting for either party had a correlation of 0.17 with casting a special vote for Yes in the euthanasia referendum, one of 0.58 with being aged 45-49 years old, one of -0.60 with voting for Vision NZ in 2020, and one of 0.68 with voting for the New Conservative Party in 2020.
The two parties have slight differences in some other ways.
In stark contrast to earlier years, when it was possible to write of ACT that they had the lowest proportion of New Zealand-born voters of any party, the correlation between voting ACT in 2020 and being New Zealand-born was -0.01. This is because the vast majority of their new elderly and rural supporters were New Zealand-born.
One notable difference between National and ACT voters is that the former are less likely to be employed part-time. The correlation between voting National in 2020 and being employed part-time was 0.27 – for voting ACT in 2020 it was 0.50. This speaks to the degree to which the ACT voters of 2020 value community engagement – in stark contrast to earlier years.
There is also a religious component. The correlation between having no religion and voting ACT in 2020 (0.37) was notably stronger than the correlation between having no religion and voting National in 2020 (0.16). ACT voters are less likely to be Hindus or Muslims by a similar margin. This speaks to how National has always pandered to Establishment religious sentiments whereas ACT has not.
In summary, from 2017 to 2020 ACT transformed. In 2017 they were a fringe party for Chinese takeaway shop owners. By 2020 they had become a mainstream movement with the potential of challenging National as the de facto leader of the right wing.
This article is an excerpt from the upcoming 3rd Edition of Understanding New Zealand, by Dan McGlashan and published by VJM Publishing. Understanding New Zealand is the comprehensive guide to the demographics and voting patterns of the New Zealand people.
If you enjoyed reading this essay, you can get a compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2019 from Amazon for Kindle or Amazon for CreateSpace (for international readers), or TradeMe (for Kiwis). A compilation of the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2018 and the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2017 are also available.