The headlines last Friday read that if an election were held today, Justin Trudeau would be the Prime Minister. Accompanied by a seat projection, the forecast was that the Liberals would hold a minority government. Given my vocation, and a few days reflection after attending the 2013 Manning Networking Conference, Canada’s centre/left parties would be challenged to dislodge the Conservatives now and in the immediate future.
Crunching polling data alone does not provide and accurate picture of what a potential election outcome. The Conservative Party of Canada clearly understands this. While it may be easy to criticize them on racking up the national debt, stifling the voice of government scientists and lampoon some of their representatives, conservatives across Canada have been successful in elections across Canada – they now hold more than 50% of the seats in federal and provincial legislatures. With sustained support, it is clear that Harper’s Conservatives, the brainchild of Preston Manning, have a clear grasp on their support base. While many a pundit and partisan supporters continue to dismiss their strength and cohesiveness, there is much the centre/left can learn from their ascendancy and organization.
First, the Conservatives have a strong grasp of electoral math. After coming close to a majority in 2008, they retooled their voter identification systems and deployed more data-driven approaches into their strategy. With the adoption of mapping tools borrowed from trade-area analyses, combined with demographic and voter analyses, the Conservatives targeted specific ridings and pockets of voters to create a winning condition. Further, every current form of communication is designed as an experiment and measure – use of bar codes, on promotional material and postal code tagging. This has helped the Party construct rich data sets that are being mined to shape messaging and targeting strategies to appeal to the existing base and motivate potential supporters. These techniques are remarkably effective. As a data scientist with pollster leanings, these are some of the techniques that we deployed in 2010 to support Naheed Nenshi’s successful mayoral campaign.
In fact, analysis of the 2008 and 2011 Federal Elections, presented by Mitch Wexler of PollMaps at last weekend’s Conference, redistributed across the new 338 ridings indicates that the Conservative Party of Canada would have won by massive majorities. A presentation by Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Victory Lab,” at the Conference indicates that they continue to explore the opportunities offered such analytical techniques. Using such data-driven approaches, the Conservatives are intent on growing their base, and as stated by Minister Jason Kenney they are intent on exceeding 40% support at the polls.
Appealing to New Canadians is another pillar to the Party’s success. Kenney, given his work with visible minority communities in the 905 region, was considered the architect of the Conservative’s 2011 majority. This so-called ethnic vote was long considered the stronghold of the Liberals. The Conservatives, given that they were stuck at one-third support and leading a minority government, identified the strong potential of this voter segment to grow their base. The strategy deployed by the Conservatives, he stated at the Conference, was straightforward – listening, alignment and commitment. By listening to what new Canadians wanted, the Conservatives considered how their values align with the values of New Canadians. In doing so, they were able to demonstrate to these communities that they were the party that best represented what being Canadian was about. And by encouraging New Canadians to become more active in the political process, through organization, volunteering and supporting their own community leaders to ensure that their voice was heard policy matters in Ottawa, they demonstrated commitment. This strategy was not lost on Conference organizers – of the 200 students attending (approximately 30% of attendees), a large share were from the Asian and South Asian communities.
Messaging is another Conservative strength. For the last five years the conservatives have been hammering away that they have been strong on the economy. Contrary to the actual situation of a growing deficit, poll after poll has indicated that the public believe that they have been doing a good job on the economy. Looking back over the last two decades, the Chrétien Liberals tamed the deficit and delivered budget surpluses year after year. However, Harper’s Conservatives have managed to make economic stewardship their own, simultaneously portraying the Liberals as weak in this area. The strength of messaging extends to the Conservatives advertising campaign on their Economic Action Plan. With a large media buy – with television ads seeming to be on air every five minutes – they know repetition drives home the point and reinforces this message. Recent polling by the Manning Centre indicates that Conservatives are perceived as being weak on the environment. They have realized that this is area is a blind spot, but it has not been fully realized by any party. So, stay tuned for their “Green Conservatism” platform.
Conservatives have also become meticulous brand managers. This is a party that has a strong understanding of its identity, vision and mission. From a communication perspective, branding is about the way that you do politics, the beliefs and culture of your party, the dedication to your platform and the belief/emotional bond that you have with your constituency. The Conservatives, amidst gaffes, prorogation and heavy-handed omnibus bills, have worked hard to define their political brand to their supporters. And in defining themselves, they have centre-left parties trying to figure out what they stand for. Observing the Liberals and NDP on this point, beyond their committed voters, they lack a clear brand or identity amongst independent and post-partisan voters willing and ready to embrace them.
The dimensions of being strong on the economy and having a winning brand are fundamental to the next component of success – attracting the business community. This is another area of alignment where the Conservatives have vested time, and communicated that they are open for business through tax cuts and business incentives. The business community supports parties that are committed to their needs, willing to stand up for their interests and are stable in power. With a majority government, Canada’s business community is aligning itself with the Conservatives. This in turn leads to attracting stronger financial support – the Party has a good cash position, while Manning’s initiatives have secured generous corporate support.
Infrastructure is also a critical component to the Conservative’s success. Most of the prominent think tanks in Canada – such as the C. D. Howe and Fraser Institutes – are conservative. While they crop up in the media to release findings from their policy papers and reports, institutions serve more important roles to the Conservative’s cause. Beyond defining the ideas for policy, they train the next generation of representatives, staff and media. The next wave of such institutions is embodied within the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Embedded within is the School of Practical Politics, which is geared to attract young conservatives straight out of university to be part of the conservative machinery – from organizing campaigns to becoming a political representative. Manning has stated many times that at Starbucks you require 30 hours of training to become a barista, but you don’t require any training to become a politician. Thus Conservatives, with Manning’s tutelage, are seeking to ramp up the role of institutions for what they hope to be a strong conservative future of Canadian politics.
A final critical element to success has been the complacency of the centre-left to ignore or not fight all of the above. The points presented reinforce how the Conservatives are setting the agenda in Canada, and for every other party to react to and follow. With success at the federal and provincial levels driving their appetite for power, the Conservatives are now targeting their efforts at municipal government. Manning stated that there are 25,000 council positions across Canada that need to be demonstrably more conservative.
While many can complain, campaign and present thoughts on how to defeat the Conservatives, the reality is that the centre-left need to learn, like Manning and Harper, to define a clear identity for themselves and why they are relevant to Canadians. And more importantly, the patient, disciplined steps and actions required in establishing the necessary infrastructure and support to regain their political footing in Canada.
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