A new way to campaign

On August 13 Stephen Harper and his entourage flew into town on their spiffy leased airplane for a campaign event. I would love to tell you more, but there is not much more to tell.

The whole event was tightly controlled and shrouded in secrecy. Nobody knew where it would be except for those who were invited, and the attendees were restricted to a handful of media, who were not allowed to ask questions (or go to the washroom without an escort), and party supporters who were vetted, screened, and, according to sources, subjected to the Blade Runner replicant detection test. If the question about the tortoise tripped you up, forget about it — there is no way you were getting in.

Aside from a dig at our provincial government, Harper’s speech consisted mostly of well-worn talking points according to news coverage of the event — that I had to google because I couldn’t remember a single thing about it on my own — and it was all directed at supporters and party members who would be voting Conservative regardless. As a result, the event was mostly a non-event.

The brief affair, which as it turns out was conveniently held within a 5 minute drive of the airport allowing for a speedy departure, made little impression on anyone including fairly diligent political observers like myself. My perception of Harper and the federal Conservative party changed exactly 0% as a result of this campaign stop. Actually, that’s not really true: my impression worsened simply because of how strictly controlled the whole affair was.

When Harper called the election six weeks earlier than normal, most pundits assumed that at least 50% of the reason was to capitalize on the cash advantage the Conservatives had over the other parties. Maybe it’s true but I question the benefit of their stockpile of pesos when they squander it on high-travel low-impact campaigning. For the thousands of dollars they spent visiting Winnipeg, they gained nothing that I can detect.

All parties do it though, if they can afford to. Maybe they don’t have their own plane, and maybe they need to be more strategic about where they visit and when, but rarely do any of the three main party leaders spend more than one day in any one place.

Justin Trudeau at a Winnipeg rally Feb 2015

You might say they do it this way because it works, but the parties that lose also do it that way. I suspect it has more to do with habit: they campaign that way because they have always campaigned that way, since the days when the only way to get your message across was to literally ride the rails to each city, stand on a stump, and shout at the townsfolk. Campaign managers know of no other way to do it.

I wonder if a more relaxed pace of campaigning would help? Spend a few days in each city — have a town hall, meet with community groups, walk around with the Mayor and get his/her take on what the issues are – you know … communicate with the people.

One thing that perpetually annoys me about politicians is how they presume to speak for the people. Canadians want this … Canadians believe that … This is what matters to Canadians … How do you know what Canadians think when you don’t talk to them? I believe an approach where the leader of a party spends more time listening to people than flying in an airplane and reciting carefully crafted lines from a podium would not only play well with the media, but give them more credibility when they speak of what the people care about. It’s riskier because not everything will play out perfectly, but the potential upside is huge. Local media coverage would be through the roof, and the leaders could still get in their shots for a national audience.

This may sound silly and naïve to experienced campaigners, but it’s hard for me to imagine that the current whistle stop strategy is as good as it gets. It seems highly inefficient to spend tens of thousands of dollars jetting around the country to deliver rehearsed talking points targeted primarily at a national audience. You might hear on the news that Trudeau was in Windsor today, Mulcair was in Vancouver and Harper was in Halifax, but does it even matter? They might as well be in a studio in downtown Toronto.

I have never been directly involved in a political campaign, as you might have guessed, but sometimes people get set in their ways and the perspective of an outsider is needed to break out of that rut. I can’t guarantee that my particular way would work, but I’ll guarantee that if party leaders took the time to engage the citizens of Winnipeg next time they came to town, I, for one, would pay more attention.

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