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Politics Game on: Each party’s final push to get voters to the polls

Game on: Each party's final push to get voters to the polls

The Conservatives have the benefit of three election victories, and all the voter data they picked up along the way. But their rivals are hungrier – and in many cases more nimble.
Adam Radwanski analyzes the tactics each party is using to get Canadians out to polling stations on Monday

J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail

It is often billed as the Conservatives' big election-day advantage.

In the past several campaigns, Stephen Harper's party has proved better than its opponents at identifying supporters and making sure they actually cast ballots. So among politics-watchers, there is a common assumption that the Tories will again do several percentage points better than public-opinion polls suggest – and, more importantly, have an advantage in close ridings where ground games make the difference between winning and losing.

But the parties' get-out-the-vote (GOTV) preparations leading up to Monday's election give the sense that this time might be different.

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When it comes to both motivation and innovation, it is often difficult for parties that have been in power a long time to keep their edge over hungrier adversaries. In this case, the organizational gap between the Tories and their main rivals has at least shrunk. In the case of some key ridings, the other parties may now be better than the Conservatives at mobilizing their backers.

No question, there remain several GOTV factors that stand to help the Conservatives, perhaps decisively so.

Their supporters tend to be older than those of the other parties, and thus somewhat more likely to vote in the first place. (An Elections Canada study following the 2011 election estimated that, while overall voter turnout had been 61 per cent, well over 70 per cent of those between the ages of 55 and 74 cast ballots.)

Because they started aggressively collecting voter data well before the other parties, the Tories entered this campaign with more of it. They also have much more practice with the mobilization strategies they will be using, so there is less chance of something unexpectedly going wrong. And while the other parties have significantly improved their fundraising over the past few years, the Conservatives' riding associations still entered this race with by far the most money in the bank, which means better-financed local campaigns.

But then there are other factors that have Liberals (and to a lesser extent, New Democrats) boasting about their readiness for close battles this time around – and that, more tellingly, cause even loyal Tories to acknowledge a bit of concern.

Ground troops

For all parties, there is a new imperative to recruit and train as many volunteers as possible. That's because, courtesy of the declining use of land lines and the popularity of caller ID, voters have become much harder to reach by phone than they were even four years ago. So, rather than relying on paid phone banks to identify supporters and get them out on election day, candidates need people willing to knock on doors.

Over the past four years, the Liberals and New Democrats have worked hard to adjust to this new reality. While they have become much more aggressive in recruiting volunteers, the biggest change has been in properly engaging them once they express interest.

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"We'd always taken the view that the key was to identify the volunteer, and then we didn't do shit after that," one senior Liberal organizer said recently. (Organizers in all parties would speak only on background while the campaign is under way.) That changed leading up to this election, with the Liberals conducting extensive training sessions and running "days of action" in which teams of volunteers canvassed across the country: The main aim was to get them comfortable with the daunting task of asking strangers for their support, and to create a sense of teamwork in the process.

The Liberals claim to now have more than 80,000 trained volunteers, and to have conducted over 10 million door knocks (presumably with many doors knocked on more than once) over the past year – both of which would be astronomical totals by recent standards. And they are especially excited about having engaged lots of activists in places they've previously had scarcely any at all: An example that comes up a lot is Calgary, where they're hoping to knock off two or three Conservative incumbents.

The New Democrats say they have over 40,000 volunteers in their database, with more names still be to added – far more than four years ago. Their biggest achievement has been to build ground organization in Quebec, which has much less of a political canvassing culture than other provinces. It's still a work in progress: An NDP official estimated that about 40 of their Quebec candidates have "full-fledged campaigns" locally, which represents only a little more than half the province's ridings – but that's probably still better than any other party could claim.

The NDP, too, has stepped up training, including its own days of action – something the party did decades ago, but had gotten away from. It also taught its more promising and enthusiastic recruits how to lead teams themselves, and in some cases how to manage election-day GOTV efforts rather than just participate in them.

And while their opponents have stepped up their volunteer efforts, the Tories – who among the major parties have long relied most heavily on the phones – appear, if anything, to have regressed on that front.

Volunteer recruitment, never their strong suit, may have improved slightly due to the fact that digital outreach has encouraged more people to sign up. But party veterans working on the ground during this campaign say that there was less effort to engage and prepare those volunteers than in the past. Training conferences, which the Tories used to hold, were largely forgone. And there are complaints that, when they did happen, they were more briefing sessions on the party's broader efforts than tutorials on how to mobilize supporters.

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The Conservatives' door-knocker deficit is not universal. Some of their MPs and first-time candidates have built up their own armies of well-trained volunteers. And some of their more cash-rich riding associations have recently taken to hiring paid canvassers. The worry for the Tories centres on those ridings where their candidates haven't taken the initiative, which dovetails with a broader challenge involving local campaigns being left to their own devices.

Central support for local candidates

One of the more publicly underrecognized strategies the Tories relied on in the previous few campaigns was their target-seat program. In an approach borrowed from their ideological cousins and close allies in Australia's Liberal Party, a high-level unit set up within Conservative headquarters helped run local campaigns in about 50 hotly contested ridings. The team was staffed with experienced campaign operatives well-versed in the ridings under their watch, and who spoke constantly with the local campaign managers to provide guidance.

By many accounts, campaign director Jenni Byrne is skeptical of that model. So while the target-riding program still exists, it is now staffed by more junior officials, and is less proactive than it once was.

Conservatives who have worked on the ground both in previous campaigns and the current one flag the differences. Rather than the "target-riding guy being your co-campaign manager," says one experienced field organizer, the unit is now "a glorified desk." In other words, it has reverted to the more traditional function of providing support (in the form of campaign materials or other resources) when asked for it, rather than helping call the shots.

"Some are good and some are bad – it's entirely dependent on the local campaign," says another organizer. "There's no central oversight."

Meanwhile, the other parties seem to have gotten closer to what the Tories used to do.

That's especially true of the New Democrats, who have long had an approach – albeit sometimes a haphazard one – of throwing many resources at a relatively few ridings. In this race, with improved party finances allowing a more professional, central operation, the NDP has invested a significant amount of its headquarters' time in about 35 seats that could get Tom Mulcair to the Prime Minister's Office – if his party can keep the ones it already has. Most of those are currently held by the Conservatives, which means that, despite the New Democrats' slide in the polls, superior riding-targeting could still eat into Mr. Harper's seat count. But those incumbents who now find themselves under threat from either Conservative or Liberal candidates, and lack robust local campaign operations, are still far from being left on their own.

It's been harder for the Liberals to centrally focus on mobilizing supporters in a relatively few ridings, since they're aiming to pick up somewhere around 100 new seats. But they are much more plugged into what is happening in each riding than they used to be, and when candidates haven't met voter-identification targets, head office has dispatched teams of experienced campaign managers to figure out what should be done differently: Is the issue short-staffing? Is data being interpreted properly?

For both the Liberals and the New Democrats, one of the biggest differences has been a dramatically improved ability to keep tabs on whether local campaigns are hitting their voter-ID targets – part of a major leap forward in their use of campaign technology.

Data and its uses

Unlike the target-riding program, the Conservatives' use of data and analytics has garnered an abundance of attention in media coverage of their electoral successes. That has been deserved: The Constituent Information Management System (CIMS), the voter database they first used in 2004, put them light years ahead of their rivals when it came to figuring out whom to target and how best to target them.

As with any type of technology, though, being first out of the gate does not mean it's easy to stay ahead. Although the Liberals had a database – called Liberalist – in place by the 2011 election, by most accounts they didn't really have much clue what to do with it. But they appear to have moved forward rapidly since then.

Armed with a mobile app that lets them immediately log information from their canvasses, most of the Liberals' local campaigns have been diligently collecting and inputting as much voter data as they can get at the doors. And this time out, they have analytics experts working at headquarters to make good use of it.

Combining that (and whatever other voter data they can get their hands on, including from the census) with their internal polling, the Liberals have developed predictive modelling that they believe has greatly enhanced their knowledge of which types of voters to target – and how to go about it. They boast that their software is so nimble that even the U.S. consultants who have been offering them advice – people who worked on Barack Obama's presidential campaigns – are impressed by how quickly and comprehensively that software updates its projections.

Of course, such claims should be taken with a grain of salt since, until the votes have been counted, there is no way of knowing if the Liberals' system works half as well as they think it does.

The NDP isn't making claims that are nearly so grandiose. But it, too, has worked with U.S. Democrats to develop a new voter-tracking system – having not had anything comparable during the last campaign – and the party has brought data managers into its headquarters.

As for the Tories, after the last election they decided to upgrade to a new database. They sank roughly $8-million into a system called C-Vote, only to scrap it shortly after its launch, when riding-level workers and volunteers complained that it was full of glitches and too difficult to use. Now, they're back to CIMS. The one major upgrade: Like the Liberals' system, it now has a mobile app. (Of the three major parties, only the New Democrats currently lack this functionality.) But in terms of how data is managed once it is input, Mr. Harper's party seems to be more or less where it was four years ago.

That doesn't mean the Tories are behind their rivals in data gathering. They still likely have much more voter information to work with, having, for the better part of a decade, been more diligent about collecting it.

But the sophistication of what they do with that data may be a different story. For the parties that started this campaign in opposition, it's been easier to try new things – after all, they had less to lose. The Liberals, especially, have been akin to a start-up these past few years, and the Tories far more established. And when it comes to using technology, that can matter a lot.

That elusive enthusiasm

Largely beyond the Conservatives' control is a simple reality: Motivating your supporters is considerably more difficult after a decade in power than when you're offering the promise of change.

The Liberals are currently able to motivate any likely backers with just that sort of promise – especially when it involves replacing a prime minister those backers have disliked from day one. And it helps their cause to have a charismatic leader who excites Liberals perhaps even more than he annoys Conservatives. (The NDP has had a tougher time getting its supporters excited by Tom Mulcair, whose chief appeal – that he might finally win power for the NDP – is now being challenged by polls that show support for the party has declined.)

Mr. Harper is better prepared to fire up loyalists than are most incumbents who have been in power as long as he has. He and the people around him, Ms. Byrne among them, often appear to have an innate sense of which buttons to press and when to press them – whether they involve taxes, law and order, the fight against gun control, or such cultural issues as the niqab.

The Tories have often been good, too, at giving their staunchest backers a sense of engagement that keeps them in the tent. Their impressive solicitation of small donors who contribute only a few dollars a year, for instance, is less about raising money than about people feeling invested in the party. But much as it may seem a long-ago memory in this long campaign, a scandal like the Mike Duffy saga can have a lingering and vote-suppressing effect on populist voters once drawn to the Tories because they seemed to stand for clean government.

Mr. Harper has also struggled to provide genuinely fresh reasons to vote for his party this election, rather than just against the other options. Last time out, he could excite backers with the potential for a majority government, after years of minorities that constrained the Conservative agenda. Now, he's offering more of the same.

True, most of his past supporters prefer that to the alternatives, but it may not have all of them rushing out to vote. In past campaigns, the Tories' superior organizational abilities would have been enough to compensate for such forces. But if the ground games are what decide this election, there's no question that the playing field is more level in 2015 – and may even be tilted in a new direction.

Adam Radwanski is a political columnist for The Globe and Mail. He has been covering the federal election since the start of 2015.


By the numbers…

Based on conversations with political observers and insiders, these 2015 numbers estimate each party's best-case scenario on election night. For the Tories, this means 169 seats: This is the bare minimum they need for a majority government – a requirement in their view, because of their opponents' apparent willingness to bring down a Conservative minority. The Liberals and NDP, on the other hand, each hope to achieve something in the neighbourhood of 135 seats. That's the approximate number at which they believe they would likely win a plurality of the seats in Parliament – and, ideally, a shot at forming a minority government.

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