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Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy
Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Flanagan and Duffy

Election Ringside, April 6: Young people today! Add to ...

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: John Duffy Sent: Wednesday, April 6, 10:48 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan Subject: Election Ringside

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The Liberals have got a very clever little video spot in circulation that highlights one of the parts of the 2011 election campaign I find most interesting. The spot seeks to cash in on Stephen Harper's - well, his staff's anyway - exclusion of young, uncommitted voters from Conservative campaign events. The spot repeats the "politics of control" theme I wrote about yesterday, which I think you'll be hearing more from the Liberals about once the positive momentum from their strong policy roll-out runs out of steam.

But what's really interesting is not what the spot says, but whom it's talking to, and how. It's aimed at young people, and it's located inside their digital universe. So right there, you've got two critical pieces of the puzzle this campaign: youth turnout and social media. Why does youth turnout matter? Because there's a pretty powerful thesis out there (which my old friend David Frum turned me on to, so go figure) that says the rise of North American conservatism in the past three decades is largely reliant on the drop in youth voting over the same period. Take out the youth - who generally vote for progressive parties - and the older, more conservative voters have a greater say in who gets elected.

Now, turnout was hands-down the most important dynamic of the 2008 election result. Basically, everybody's vote fell a little from 2006, and the Liberals fell a lot. That's right - Mr. Harper's terrific 2008 campaign, which brought him oh-so-close to a majority, actually garnered fewer votes than his 2006 effort. If the Liberals' turnout had only fallen in lockstep with the others, Mr. Harper's second mandate would still have him back in the 125-seat range, and the Liberals would have still been at the healthy 100-odd seats Paul Martin left them with.

So in a world where turnout is critical for the Liberals, and youth turnout is doubly critical, you can see how vital it is for the Grits to get through to young Canadians, and get them down to the polls. Reaching young people is all about social media - forget paid TV spots, let alone earned mainstream press. So it's pretty clear what zone the Liberals are trying to play in with this little foray.

Tom, the Conservative social media and digital efforts are fascinating as well. What can you tell us about the Tory thrust in this zone, where they have the technology edge?

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Wednesday, April 6, 2011, 11:31 a.m. ET To: John Duffy

John, I'm afraid I can't comment on the Conservatives' use of social media. I really haven't kept up on that. I tend to think that once we are in to the writ period, social media are less important than traditional forms of advertising, such as TV and radio. They reach far more people and with more repetition, which is the key to effectiveness in advertising.

On the topic of the youth vote, you're right that young voters claim to support so-called "progressive" parties, but their support is usually not worth much because of low turnout. I'm skeptical that a Canadian party can change that fact in our short writ period, no matter how clever the messaging may be.

The underlying problem, in my view, is the prolongation of adolescence. Most young people today are not fully in the adult world - marriage, children, home ownership, permanent employment - till their 30s. By then they've read Hayek, understand that true progress comes through the market, not government, and are ready to vote Conservative!

Another example of what Hegel called "the cunning of reason."

From: John Duffy Sent: Wednesday, April 6, 12:01 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

... and the music they listen to - it's just noise! Tom, I'm smiling. You're so analytical and objective and scholarly most of the time, I start to forget what a real movement conservative you are. Thank you for reminding me so bracingly of your true-blue colours with this missive.

I guess I'm coming at this social media stuff from a different angle than you are, and since our readers have in their comments encouraged us to get as nerdy as we wish, here goes. I read more Heidegger than Hayek in university, and consequently believe that technology carries its own political imperatives - in a way that can actually alter the political circumstances in which the technology was born. So it is, I think, with social media. My sense is that for good or ill, this new kind of technology is enabling a political revolution, and not just in places like Egypt and Bahrain.

Here at home, social media is revolutionizing local decision-making, citizen politics, urban form, public advocacy, charitable causes and even electoral politics. How come? Because the technology has characteristics that change the core economics of politicking. Social media is so cheap and accessible, it confers persuasive power once solely in the hands of large aggregated interests (e.g. TV advertising by political parties or print ads by major interest groups) into the hands of thousands of individuals. The technology is thus inherently democratizing in its nature.

Social media thus transfers power. And to whom? Not old guys like us. Social media belongs to the kids - just as surely as rock 'n' roll on transistor radios did once upon a time. There are attitudes and postures that come from spending time in these new, youthful technological spaces. When these turn into political positions, things get very interesting.

Barack Obama's campaign touched on this dynamic in 2008, using the nascent potential of social media to stimulate registration and turnout among younger voters. In the 2010 midterms, the Republicans fought back ferociously, using their financial muscle to bring conservative community networks into the Republican digital campaign, and using social media to suppress Democratic turnout. It was a huge success.

I suspect the Harper campaign has some pretty sophisticated operations of this kind at work in 2011. I am also certain that they'll be blown away if a serious youth participation dynamic were to get going - one tweet at a time.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Wednesday, April 6, 2011, 12:53 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

Ah yes, Heidegger. I gave up when I got to " andenkendes Denken." I didn't begin reading Hayek until I was 33, so there's still time for you.

I don't disagree with what you say about the importance of social media to the younger generation. I just don't think it's going to make a big difference in this Canadian election.

You're right that Mr. Obama effectively used social media to build youth support in the United States 2008, but that doesn't mean Michael Ignatieff can do it in Canada in 2011. Here are two key differences: (1) presidential campaigns last almost two years, counting the nomination race, so there's lot of time to build virtual communities; and (2) Mr. Obama was himself a youth phenomenon who appealed to young people almost as one of them.

Mr. Ignatieff, by way of contrast, is nearly as old as I am.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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