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Doctors' group targeting swing votes for seniors issues

Simon Doyle.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Simon Doyle covers lobbying and the intersection of business and politics in Ottawa. He writes for Politics Insider, which is available only to subscribers of Globe Unlimited.

The Canadian Medical Association says it is tapping into voter frustration about health care in close ridings as part of a digital campaign to generate public support for policies to help seniors.

The association has been using Facebook, Google and YouTube to target ridings that in the 2011 election had margins of victory of 7 per cent or less, with particular emphasis on those with 3 per cent or less. The CMA was hoping to sign up about 10,000 supporters to its Demand a Plan campaign, and with several weeks to go before election day, it has received 22,500 supporters, organizers said.

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The campaign's early numbers are encouraging, said Alan Rosenblatt, senior vice-president of digital strategy for public affairs consulting firm turner4D in Washington, D.C. "Getting people excited and acting on an election this far in advance has always been a hard thing to do," he said.

Faced with a swelling aging population, the doctors' association says seniors are not getting the care they need, which is creating inefficient stresses on the health-care system such as gridlocked hospitals.

The association has allied with other groups – including Osteoporosis Canada, the Canadian Association of Optometrists, the National Pensioners Federation and the Heart and Stroke Foundation – to form the Alliance for a National Seniors Strategy. It is calling for measures such as investment in long-term-care facilities and home care.

CMA officials said their campaign is reaching seniors as well as younger families experiencing the health-care system as they care for aging parents.

"There's a lot of strong passion from people, almost bordering on anger," said Chris Simpson, president of the Canadian Medical Association. "It feels like we've really tapped into a sentiment that we could really scale up."

The officials said the group's budget will be within the third-party advertising limit, which is $433,849 nationally for a 78-day election campaign.

The campaign's objective is to lever senior's health care onto the parties' platforms and into the campaign debates. The group is using microtargeted, local advertising, particularly on Facebook, to reach voters concerned about health care in swing ridings across the country.

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The CMA has hired lobbying and public affairs consultancy Sussex Strategy Group and Toronto digital engagement firm Adrenaline to develop the campaign. The Canadian Nurses Association, which is also part of the alliance, has launched a separate but related digital campaign for better home care.

Supporters of the campaign commit to engage on the issue on social media and use a digital platform that helps them send an e-mail or a letter to their local party candidates. As the campaign expands, it will also facilitate voters reaching out to the party leaders, CMA officials said.

It is targeting 27 ridings that had a margin of victory of 3 per cent or less in the 2011 election, including about 10 in Ontario and five in Quebec, the people said. So far, they said, the campaign is receiving strong support in ridings in the suburbs of Vancouver and Toronto, as well as a few in Nova Scotia.

The CMA has also been targeting the political parties directly, and in the spring got Conservative, NDP and Liberal MPs to agree to create an all-party seniors caucus after the next election.

The CMA's microtargeting approach should help the group stand out among the myriad of digital marketing online, and rally sympathetic supporters.

Mr. Rosenblatt said Facebook can provide very targeted, local and issue-based advertising. "Rather than just targeting based on geography, you target people who are interested in the issue that you're messaging about," he said. "You can rise above the noise."

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Software tools such as ActionSprout provide effective Facebook plug-ins for campaigns, he said, which are more effective than an external website to which people must click through.

Tagging politicians in Twitter messages and Facebook posts can also be more effective than sending e-mails, he said.

Facebook spokeswoman Meg Sinclair said in an e-mailed statement that successful Facebook campaigning has been led by Toronto Mayor John Tory, as well as B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who won power after using the social media platform to geo-target voters in the province's closest races.

"Over all, we do see organizations of all types using Facebook as an important platform for civic engagement, reaching people directly and having two-way dialogue during campaigns," Ms. Sinclair said.

"We've got good reason to believe the parties are going to have something to say about health care in their platforms, and on seniors in particular," said the CMA's Dr.. Simpson, who is now hoping the campaign will "explode" toward 100,000 supporters.

Dr. Simpson is expected to continue speaking on the issue as Nova Scotia family doctor Cindy Forbes takes over as president of the organization this month.

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