We are about to witness a fascinating political experiment, the first of its kind in Canada.
Justin Trudeau’s leadership team is attempting to bypass Liberal Party elites and allegiances, according to sources close to the campaign, using the same methods that Barack Obama’s campaign used to do an end run around the Democratic Party and make him president.
If Team Trudeau pulls it off, a new generation of young and minority voters – many who have never cast ballots before – could transform the political landscape. But it remains a very big if.
Back in 2008, the Democratic establishment was dominated by allies and acolytes of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Obama and his organizers knew they could never win over that establishment. Instead, they used the technologies of voter identification and social media to recruit supporters for the charismatic young senator.
The primary system – which typically allows anyone registered as a Democrat to cast a ballot for the party’s presidential nominee – made it possible for Mr. Obama to mobilize millions of supporters, many of them young and minority voters who had never before been part of a political campaign. Some of them had never even voted before.
As Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment watched in astonishment, Obama for America stole the nomination out from under them. That same coalition then elected and re-elected Mr. Obama as president.
Such a thing could never happen in Canada’s New Democratic or Conservative parties, where only a tiny number of dues-paying members can vote for party leader, giving party elites tremendous influence over the choice.
But earlier this year, the Liberals created a new class of affiliates, called “supporters.” No fee or party membership is required for supporters to cast a ballot for leader. All they need do is sign up.
Team Trudeau aims to create supporter-recruitment machines in all 308 ridings (just as Obama for America did in all 50 states). They will employ every tool, from old-fashioned door knocking to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Many of these new supporters will be young, female and/or minorities – the same base that rallied behind Obama for America.
The riding campaigns will feed the names of these new supporters to campaign central, which will combine the information in a database that will, if it succeeds, contain hundreds of thousands of entries, each a mini profile of a Justin Trudeau supporter.
Assuming Mr. Trudeau wins the leadership, that new base of support will grow and deepen between the leadership vote next April and the general election in October, 2015.
Could it happen? Campaign officials said that, of the first 1,700 volunteers who signed up in the weeks after Mr. Trudeau announced he was running for the leadership, more than a thousand said they had never been part of a political campaign before. Still, there are challenges, some of them formidable. For one thing, keeping a machine created during a leadership campaign fired up for an election is much easier when the election happens mere months, rather than two years, after that campaign.
Campaign and party financing laws limit the ability of Team Trudeau to raise funds. One example: Obama for America allowed supporters to download campaign materials and voters lists and organize their own campaigns. But under Canadian law, any spending from such groups would have to be listed as a campaign expense. Mr. Trudeau’s organizers chafe at the $950,000 spending limit the party has imposed on the campaign, which hobbles their efforts to organize and recruit.
Most important, it remains to be seen whether Justin Trudeau can connect with potential supporters in the way Mr. Obama so famously did. But the rewards are worth the challenges: If Team Trudeau can replicate even a fraction of Obama For America’s achievement, politics in this country will never be the same.