Did National really ‘paint Hamilton blue?’

The morning after 2017 general election, the Waikato Times declared that local National MPs David Bennett and Tim Macindoe painted Hamilton blue. The preliminary results were in and it appeared that David Bennett and Tim Macindoe had comfortably held their seats against their challengers. Newshub showed statistics like Hamilton West being part of National’s urban success story (the only electorate outside of Auckland where National increased its party vote).

We would have to wait another 26 days to find out whether it would be the fourth term of the National-led government, or the first term of a new Labour-led government, but in Hamilton it seemed like a pretty safe National victory. Or was it?

The local results got me wondering – should Hamilton East and West still be considered bellwether seats? Did National really ‘paint Hamilton blue’? If we are just considering the two general electorate races on either side of the Waikato River, that is indeed correct.

But in the age of MMP, I don’t think this portrays an accurate picture of how Hamilton voted. I decided to have a closer look at how Hamiltonians voted in 2017 to see if this ‘blue city’ portrayal really stacked up.

Photo credit: Dominico Zapata / Stuff
Hamilton East MP David Bennett and Labour List MP Jamie Strange on election night 2017. Photo credit: Dominico Zapata / Stuff

Bellwether seats

Over the last 40-50 years, the Hamilton electorates have been considered bellwether seats – electorates that indicate a trend across the country. ‘Bellwether’ is an odd word derived from Middle English. The origin comes from the practice of placing a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) leading a flock of sheep. I’m not sure if the whole ‘populace = sheep’ was intentional when the term began to be used in political science, but it appears someone had a good sense of humour!

In a nutshell – when Hamilton has backed National, it’s been a National Government, and when Hamilton has backed Labour, it’s been a Labour Government. In the First Past the Post (FPP) era, this was fairly accurate with the exception of 1993 when Labour candidates Dianne Yates and Martin Gallagher won both electorates while the Jim Bolger’s National Government returned to power.


Under MMP, Hamilton East has started to buck the bellwether trend. Former All Black, Hamilton Boys’ High School headmaster and National MP Tony Steel held the Hamilton East seat in 1999 despite Labour winning the election, and David Bennett won the seat in 2005 despite Labour being elected for a third term.

Since the introduction of MMP, Labour has only won the Hamilton East electorate once and it was by a margin of 614 votes. Tony Steel was the sitting MP and he did much better in 2002 than his party did! In Hamilton East, National got 7573 (23.73%) party votes while Tony Steel got 12,213 (38.65%) electorate votes. If it wasn’t for National’s disastrous 2002 election result, it’s likely that Hamilton East would have been held by National for over 20 years since the introduction of MMP.

On the surface it appears that Hamilton West remains a bellwether seat, but unless Labour can come up with a likeable, high-profile candidate for the 2020 election, it’s likely to remain a National seat regardless of whether we have a second term for the Labour-led coalition or a new future National government.

I mention ‘likeable’ because this is an important factor on National’s electoral success in Hamilton. David and Tim are friendly, approachable local MPs who can be seen at many community events. It’s not uncommon to hear “I don’t like his views on this policy, but he’s a hardworking MP for Hamilton”, “always at community events”, “he’s a good guy” etc.

Under MMP, I don’t think we can look at the electorate vote to determine whether an electorate is a bellwether seat or not. However, if we start to look at the party votes, we start to get a more accurate picture.



The party votes for Hamilton East and Hamilton West are pretty close to the nationwide result.

Party Hamilton East + Hamilton West New Zealand
National Party 47.06% 44.4%
Labour Party 36.14% 36.9%
New Zealand First Party 6.70% 7.2%
Green Party 5.20% 6.3%
The Opportunities Party (TOP) 2.92% 2.4%
Māori Party 0.59% 1.2%
ACT New Zealand 0.51% 0.5%
Other 0.90% 1.1%


Whenever there is political discussion about Hamilton, the focus is always on the two general electorates. Hamilton’s third electorate always seems to be forgotten – Hauraki-Waikato. This electorate spans from the southern suburbs of Auckland all the way to Te Awamutu and Kihikihi. 6533 people, or approximately 35.7% of the voters of Hauraki-Waikato electorate, voted in Hamilton polling booths. It is safe to assume that many of the Hauraki-Waikato voters that voted in Hamilton polling booths are residents of Hamilton.

Hamilton has the second highest Māori population in New Zealand (or third if you group the populations of Wellington, Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt and Porirua) and it has the highest percentage of Maori residents in a New Zealand city.

Hamilton’s Māori population is also growing faster on average. By 2030, Statistics NZ projects that one in four Hamiltonians will be Māori.

 City / District Maori population Maori % of total population
Auckland 142,767 10.7%
Hamilton City 28,605 21.3%
Christchurch City 27,768 8.5%
Rotorua District 22,410 37.5%
Far North District 22,110 44.5%
Gisborne District 19,683 48.9%
Whangarei 18,720 26.2%
Tauranga City 18,678 17.1%
Hastings District 16,821 24.4%
Lower Hutt City 15,879 17.1%
Wellington City 14,433 7.9%
Waikato District 14,403 24.2%
Whakatane District 13,032 43.5%
Palmerston North City 12,546 16.5%
New Plymouth District 11,082 15.7%

Of the 79,849 voters that cast their vote in Hamilton polling booths, approximately 9% were registered on the Māori electoral roll. While this doesn’t seem like a big number, it makes a huge difference when you look at how Hamiltonians on the Māori electoral roll voted.


To get an accurate picture of how Hamiltonians voted, you can’t ignore the results from the Hauraki-Waikato electorate. If we combine the polling booth data from Hamilton East, Hamilton West and Hauraki-Waikato (Hamilton booths only), this is what the election outcome looks like:



As soon as you factor in Hauraki-Waikato’s votes in Hamilton, the Labour and Greens bloc is neck-in-neck with National and his closest support partner ACT.

Some may discredit this addition of Hauraki-Waikato votes because some of those votes may be from people that live outside Hamilton but are on the Māori electoral roll and are registered in Hauraki-Waikato. That is possible and these numbers are included on the assumption that at least 95% of the party votes are cast by Hamiltonians voting at a Hamilton polling booth.

But these graphs above do not include special votes that were cast in Hauraki-Waikato. Special votes nationwide came to 15% of the total votes, so it’s important that we try and find a way to factor these in.

4,559 special votes were cast in Hauraki-Waikato in the 2017 election. However it is not possible to work out how many of those special votes are from Hamiltonians and how many are from people in others parts of the Hauraki-Waikato electorate. This is how I’ve calculated my special vote estimate:

Special vote total (special votes before polling day + special votes on polling day) * 0.357 (35.7% of Hauraki-Waikato voters voted at Hamilton polling booths)

So what does this actually look like?



Based on this estimate:

  • The Labour and Greens bloc received slightly higher support in Hamilton than National and its closest support party ACT.
  • The majority of Hamiltonians voted for a change in the composition of government (supporting parties that weren’t part of the 2014 National-led coalition government).


These estimates cannot be taken as gospel, but I believe it is much closer to the actual result than ignoring the electorate which accounted for almost 10% of the votes cast in Hamilton.

If anyone is keen to challenge these estimates or check my figures, please comment below and I’ll get in touch with some very messy spreadsheets that were used to work this all out. All feedback is welcome – if there is something I should factor in that I haven’t, let me know. I want to make this projection as accurate as possible.

Not as blue as expected

As Hamilton continues to grow and as demographics change over time, local political commentary and analysis is going to become more inaccurate if we only focus on the general electorate results. Once you look at the complete picture, it’s hardly the ‘Hamilton painted blue’ result that the headlines suggest.

Due to these changing demographics, I don’t think that Hamilton East and Hamilton West electorate are likely to remain bellwether seats. Certainly not based on the results of the electorate votes anyway. Unless there is a substantial shift of enrollments from the Māori electoral roll to the general electoral roll, or a major shake-up of the electorate boundaries (such as the introduction of a third general electorate for Hamilton), it would not surprise me if both seats were still held by National after 2020.

One unknown factor here is Jamie Strange. He managed to cut a reasonable chunk of David Bennett’s majority in the 2017 election and he’s made it into parliament on the Labour list, which means he’ll be able to be active in the community as a Hamilton-based MP. If he continues his door-knocking and his busy schedule attending community events, he might be in a better position to challenge David in 2020.

The other unknown factor is how the Labour Party will deal with Hamilton West in 2020. After the abrupt departure of Sue Moroney, Labour had to fly in a candidate from Auckland – Gaurav Sharma. I would be very surprised to see him put his name forward for Hamilton West in 2020, however I’d expect to see his name on the Labour Party list. The party probably owes him for his ‘taking one for the team’ campaign in Hamilton West, which had minimal run-in time before the election and limited time to build support on the ground. Labour will need a high-profile Hamiltonian to run in that seat, otherwise it is likely to be held by Tim Macindoe as long as he chooses to stand for parliament.

The results of this exercise surprised me – I was expecting that the gap between the Labour / Greens bloc and National would get closer, but I did not expect the estimate to show that the Labour / Greens bloc may have actually done better than National in Hamilton. It’s amazing what you can find when you dig a little deeper!

In part two, I’ll be looking at how different parts of Hamilton voted.

Title photo credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism image library


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