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The NDP have recruited Jeremy Bird, national field director for the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
The NDP have recruited Jeremy Bird, national field director for the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Former Obama aides advising NDP, Liberals on campaign strategy Add to ...

The 2015 federal election will require political parties to work harder than ever to capture the attention of the electorate. With this story, Adam Radwanski begins a new assignment looking at how the party machines across the country are preparing.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have quietly been getting regular advice from Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Barack Obama’s deputy campaign manager in the last U.S. presidential campaign.

Somewhat more openly, Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats have been receiving guidance from Jeremy Bird, who was Mr. Obama’s national field director.

Look closely enough, and it is possible to see the influence of those and other prominent Democrats on the Liberals’ and NDP’s election preparations – just not in the ways one might expect, based on some of the hype about high-tech methods set to be imported.

Insiders from both parties concede that some of the most ambitious techniques from the Obama campaigns – the sort that are said to use advanced data analytics to target messages to individual voters – are not applicable in a country with less money in its political system, stricter privacy laws that limit access to personal information, and a less predictable electorate than one in which voters register to support one of two parties.

As an example of Mr. Bird’s input, New Democrats instead point to the “days of action” they have been holding every month or two, in which teams of canvassers talk to voters about a specific policy proposal or issue. Although part of the objective is to collect data about potential supporters, the point is mostly to engage and train volunteers in the hope of having a force ready to roll when the campaign begins in earnest.

The Liberals have been nudged toward more volunteer training as well. And as further evidence of taking advice from the Americans, party sources point to the $3 contributions they have been soliciting from first-time donors – a minuscule amount meant to get people in the habit of giving so that larger amounts can be sought in future. If those do not jump out as revolutionary concepts, that is somewhat the point. Much of what Democratic consultants are preaching is a sort of return to basics for parties that long neglected the painstaking work needed to build national grassroots organizations.

For a time, parties got away with that neglect more easily. Television advertising and other mass communication allowed them to get their messages out. Paid phone banks became a preferred way of identifying supporters and ensuring they voted without too many on-the-ground volunteers. Lax fundraising rules allowed the Liberals to get by mostly on corporate and large individual contributions, and the NDP on union ones.

Today, changing media consumption habits make it increasingly difficult to reach voters through mass communication, people are harder to reach by phone because they have done away with land lines or have caller ID, and corporate, union and large personal donations are banned. So parties and candidates have to work harder and more creatively to capture the attention (and dollars) of an electorate that can more easily tune them out – something that social media and other online tools can help with, but that also requires direct personal contact.

“What’s been proven is that successful campaigns use an integrated approach to reach voters in one-on-one conversations, whether that’s online or on the ground,” Mr. Bird says. “This grassroots outreach is hard work and requires a deeper investment.” (Ms. O’Malley Dillon did not respond to requests for comment.)

Low levels of civic engagement do not make it easy to get boots on the ground, but this is where the Democrats’ experience comes in handy. Granted, Mr. Obama was a once-in-a-lifetime candidate, engaging people who otherwise would have been bystanders. But courtesy of their deeper pockets and other resources, they were also able to test engagement methods, some of which apply in Canada.

In the broader sense, those include empowering volunteers and making them feel part of a community. So the Liberals and New Democrats now have a better sense of how quickly they need to establish personal contact after someone expresses interest in helping; how best to keep that person engaged between (rather than just during) campaigns; how they can make her feel trusted, for instance, by giving her access to their database to enter findings from a canvass rather than just asking her to hand over her clipboards.

More nuanced are recommendations for the wording of e-mails to prospective volunteers and donors to elicit the best response, and how often to ask for help before a saturation point is reached.

And as they encourage Canadian parties to use two versions of most communications to gauge which works better, they can advise what to test. (When fundraising, for example, it is apparently worth checking which dollar amounts work best. Whom the request ostensibly comes from does not make a huge difference.)

As the election draws closer, the parties’ focus and the Democrats’ advice will shift from organization-building to connecting with the broader electorate. And by no means is that advice limited to the basics. Liberals acknowledge, for instance, that Ms. O’Malley Dillon is helping them use their limited data to make headway on voter analytics, on which they have lagged even by Canadian standards.

But for now at least, the guidance on grassroots mobilization could give the Liberals and New Democrats an advantage, relative to whom they are up against.

The governing Conservatives are not known to be working with veterans of recent campaigns in the United States or elsewhere. Consistently outflanking their rivals on fundraising, they likely do not need help there. But partly in response to a shortage of volunteers at the riding level, their voter outreach in recent campaigns has been heavily centralized – including through reliance on phone banks.

If that approach offers diminishing returns, as even some veterans of Conservative campaigns concede it might, they may wind up behind their rivals in adapting more traditional grassroots activism to the 21st century.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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