Headlines this month have claimed that if an election were held today, soon-to-be-crowned Liberal leader Justin Trudeau would be the Prime Minister by a narrow minority. Think again. Given my experience as a political strategist, and a few days of reflection after hearing from the top right-wing strategists at last week’s Manning Networking Conference, I’d say that Canada’s centre-left parties would be challenged to dislodge the Conservatives now or in the immediate future.
Crunching polling data alone does not provide an accurate picture of 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 and stifling the voices of government scientists, right-wing parties have been successful in elections across Canada – they now hold more than 50 per cent of the combined seats in federal and provincial legislatures. There is much that Liberals, New Democrats and others on the left can learn from their ascendancy and organization. Here are the key lessons I picked up from my victorious right-wing counterparts:
1. Get the numbers right. 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 data, the Conservatives targeted specific ridings and pockets of voters to create a winning condition.
2. Use your mail as a lab. Every form of communication the Conservatives send and receive from voters is designed as a measuring tool, through 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, combined with targeting strategies to appeal to the existing base and motivate potential supporters. These techniques are remarkably effective. I know, because as a data scientist with pollster experience, our team deployed some of these techniques in 2010 to support Naheed Nenshi’s successful campaign for mayor of Calgary.
A presentation at the Manning conference by Sasha Issenberg, author of political-data book The Victory Lab, indicates that they continue to explore the opportunities offered by such analytical techniques. Using such data-driven approaches, the Conservatives are intent on growing their base and, as stated by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, they are intent on exceeding their current 40 per cent support at the polls.
3. Make yourself the party of new immigrants. Appealing to new Canadians is another pillar of the Conservative Party’s success. Mr. Kenney, given his work with visible-minority communities in the 905 area code that surrounds Toronto, was considered the architect of the Conservatives’ 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 as the best instrument to expand their base.
The strategy deployed by the Conservatives, Mr. Kenney told 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 becoming 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 (about a third of attendees), a large share were from the Asian and South Asian communities.
4. Repeat a simple message until people believe it. Messaging is another Conservative strength. For the last five years the party has been endlessly repeating the message 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 Jean Chrétien liberals tamed the deficit and delivered budget surpluses year after year. However, Mr. Harper’s Conservatives have managed to make economic stewardship their own while 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 – the TV ads seemed to be on air every five minutes – they know repetition drives home the point and reinforces the 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 – so stay tuned for their “Green Conservatism” platform.
5. Understand that your party is a brand. 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 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 left the liberal and social-democratic parties struggling to figure out what they stand for. Beyond their committed voters, the Liberals and NDP lack a clear brand or identity amongst independent and post-partisan voters who otherwise might be willing and ready to embrace them.
6. Get the business community onside. This is another area of alignment where the Conservatives have vested time, by communicating 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 stable in power. With a majority government, Canada’s business community is aligning itself with the Conservatives. This in turn leads the party to attract stronger financial support – the Conservative Party has a good cash position, while Mr. Manning’s initiatives have secured generous corporate support.
7. Have a think-tank backbone. Infrastructure is also a critical component to the Conservatives’ success. The largest think tanks in Canada – such as the C.D. Howe and Fraser Institutes – are conservative. While most Canadians know these think tanks when they crop up in the media to release findings from their policy papers and reports, these institutions serve more important roles for the party. Beyond defining ideas for policy, they train the next generation of representatives, staff and media.
The next wave of such institutions is embodied in the host of last week’s conference, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Embedded within it is the School of Practical Politics, which is geared to attracting young conservatives straight out of university to be part of the party machinery – from organizing campaigns to becoming a political representative.
Mr. 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 Preston 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.
8. Have enemies who lack these tactics. A final critical element to Conservative success has been the complacency of the centre-left, and their tendency to ignore the lessons listed here.
While many can complain, campaign and present thoughts on how to defeat the Conservatives, the reality is that the centre-left needs to learn, like Preston Manning and Stephen Harper, to define a clear identity for themselves and why they are relevant to Canadians. And more importantly, the patient, they must begin to take the disciplined steps and actions required in establishing the necessary infrastructure and support to regain their political footing in Canada.
Brian Singh, the president of Zinc Research, is a political consultant based in Calgary.