A volunteer for the federal NDP association in Beaches-East York, a battleground Toronto riding the New Democrats will be fighting to keep in this year's election, was entering findings from a door-to-door canvass into her party's database when a congratulatory message popped up on her screen.
First-term MP Matthew Kellway and his team, she was told, had hit a benchmark for the number of people they reached at the door that week. So as a reward, they would get free access to a central phone bank their party uses to call constituents – something for which local candidates or associations usually have to pay.
The little gesture was indicative of a big way in which technology has changed the relationship between national parties and local campaigns, and how the parties are trying to take advantage of it.
Not long ago, parties were hard-pressed to tell whether candidates were doing the things expected to help them win close races. Unless they sent field organizers to scrutinize them, they would have to take local campaigns' word for how often they were door-knocking, how many potential supporters they contacted; how many volunteers they had and how they were being deployed.
Now, anyone who wants to run under a party's banner (save for the odd entrenched incumbent, permitted to continue treating his or her constituency as a personal fiefdom) is required to enter any and all relevant voter and organizational information into the party's database. The central campaign team is thus able to look over candidates' shoulders to see what they are actually doing – and to offer some combination of carrots and sticks to get the local campaigns to do what they want.
"We support ridings that support themselves," was how a member of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's campaign team put it. The phone bank access is an example of that, and so is using available metrics to help decide whether to grant requests for visits by the leader for local fundraisers or to help raise candidates' profiles.
Justin Trudeau's Liberals appear to be at least as blunt in signalling they are willing to help meet local needs based on what they see in their database. According to an official in that party, campaigns have been told the level of activity by candidates and their teams will be factored into the Liberals' list of ridings that receive extra resources during the campaign because the races are thought to be close enough that a little more support could make the difference.
Polling data, the Liberal official acknowledged, will still be paramount in deciding which ridings get priority. But "we want it to be much more metric-driven than in the past … if you're showing you're doing things we can measure, you can move up the list."
Conservatives, who have been using their database to monitor ridings' efforts for longer than the other parties, seem a bit more skeptical about the extent to which an incentive system can be used. For one thing, sources in that party cautioned, it could inadvertently encourage local campaigns to exaggerate their stats (although spot checks by the central party, such as calling a few people identified locally as supporters, can help prevent that). And they questioned whether, just to teach candidates a lesson, any party would not give priority to ridings it has a chance of winning.
On that latter point, Liberals and New Democrats conceded it would be more difficult to play favourites during the heat of the writ period than it is now. But close to election day, the ever-improving ability to monitor what candidates are doing could be used in different and more urgent ways.
If the data show a campaign in a pivotal riding does not have its act together, the parties will not be shy about effectively taking over. That could mean a replacement campaign manager, or a SWAT team comes in briefly to show what's expected. The Conservatives in the past couple of elections have been willing to call the shots for some candidates – right down to what doors they should knock on.
Even if losing control of their campaign helps them in the end, most candidates do not want to get to that point given the potential embarrassment. Aside from hoping to impress the public, people seeking office usually want to be seen positively within their party so they are considered for future posts, or at least carry weight with their leader and would-be benchmates.
That's why, for all the specific things they can give or take away from local campaigns, a lot of the parties' efforts to shape their behaviour comes down to playing to their egos.
As the Liberals were holding their winter caucus meeting, for instance, they announced that Mississauga-Streetsville candidate Gagan Sikand had "reached the most Canadians" – which is to say logged the most data about voters with whom he or his volunteers interacted – of any of their nominees.
Mr. Sikand was said to be pleased by the attention, as he was praised on Twitter by Liberal campaign director Katie Telford; some of his colleagues were perhaps a bit unnerved.
The message was clear, even if it was framed positively. The party is watching closely what its candidates do, in ways it could not have before, and judging them accordingly.