As Rob Ford's mayoral election campaign rolled through the city of Toronto last year, it was notable for two things: its technological tactics and its ability to bring together voters from across the political spectrum with straightforward messaging. Now that a federal election is underway, strategists from both parties, looking for any edge they can get, are turning to Ford's campaign for inspiration.
Federal Tory candidates, who for years have been shut out of the city centre, have now been inspired to take a page out of the Ford manual by attempting to tap into the mayor's base. They've stolen Ford's former campaign manager Nick Kouvalis, condensed their message to three unpretentious points and are deploying the technological goodies that helped propel Mr. Ford to victory.
Not to be outdone, federal Liberals are leaning on a former Ford wonderboy of their own and adopting a measure of the mayor's trademark indignation. But there is no guarantee messages or techniques that played so well in a local race will translate very well nationally.
"In general, the transfer and practice of winning campaign recipes from one level of government to another is a bit of a crapshoot," said Myer Siemiatycki, a political scientist at Ryerson University, pointing to the propensity of voters to often elect politicians of very different stripes between federal, provincial and municipals scenes.
"In municipal politics, candidates draw support in a much more ecumenical and unpredictable way than traditional party attachments," said Mr. Siemiatycki, an expert on local politics. "The municipal election is seen in much less of policy terms than in service delivery."
He said it could be telling of a candidate's intentions to look at what municipal leader's campaign they were hoping to emulate, pointing to the upset victory of Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi as a counterpoint to Mr. Ford. While Mr. Ford ran a stripped-down campaign focusing on a simple message of tightening the government's purse strings, Mr. Nenshi found success by arguing government could be more ambitious and used as a tool for tackling social problems.
It remains to be seen if any party stands to benefit from following the Ford model.
For much of the Ford campaign, Mr. Kouvalis, a proud conservative, formed an unlikely alliance with Josh Justice, a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal, and president of the polling and communications firm PrimeContact. As heads of political firms that embrace cutting-edge polling and electorate-tracking technologies, they out-gunned Mr. Ford's mayoral competition with a barrage of nightly tracking polls, social-media marketing tactics, supporter call-outs, and telephone town-halls, a relatively new addition to the Canadian electoral universe, in which a robo-call invites anywhere up to 30,000 people to interact with a candidate in a format resembling a radio-call-in show. Candidates will conduct hundreds of these town halls - introduced to Canada in 2008 - across the country in the coming weeks.
On the face of it, the formula would seem simple for federal Conservative candidates to mimic: target Ford voters using Ford language and Ford methods - and victory is possible.
But it's not that simple.
Mr. Ford rode a staggering amount of Liberal support to success. One poll found he drew more voters who characterized themselves as Liberal than Mr. Smitherman, the former Liberal cabinet minister. That kind of mass political defection likely won't happen during a federal campaign, where party allegiances run deep, according to Mr. Justice.
"That was one of the things that made that campaign so fun," he said. "He gained momentum so rapidly, pulling votes equally from Liberals and Conservatives and really transcending so many boundaries.… The concept of any campaign is to have a clear message and have that message reach people. In the past, door-knocking did the trick. Now we've shown that technology can be just as effective."
None of this has been lost on Liberal strategists.
Throughout his 2010 campaign, Mr. Ford's message was about stopping wasteful spending and returning money to voters. Compare that to the federal Liberal message of late: end corruption, stop blowing taxpayer money on fighter jets and G20 security, and make corporations ease the load on individual taxpayers.
"You can align that messaging very closely with the messaging that worked for Ford," said Mr. Justice.
Mr. Volpe certainly sees it that way. He's condensed his message and adopted the technology.
"With these town halls, I just thought I'd give it a shot because mail-outs can be so cumbersome and the feedback can take so long," he said of his first virtual gathering held last week. "It was remarkable. A few thousand people showed up and some called back to say thank you."
Still, while Liberals might be cribbing from the Ford playbook, that doesn't guarantee the Ford vote.
In one of the earliest polls of federal GTA voters, released on Monday, Forum Research foresaw the Conservatives potentially stealing eight ridings from the Liberals, nudging their election total towards a 162-seat majority. The poll also found the GTA breaking 40 per cent for the Conservatives, 32 per cent for the Liberals and 22 per cent for the NDP.
"That's a much bigger number for the Tories than we usually see," said Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum. Currently, of 47 seats in the GTA, the Liberals hold 31 while the Conservatives have 14, with the NDP holding down the remaining two. Within the City of Toronto, the numbers skew red, with the Grits owning 21 of 23 seats while the Tories have zilch. "Ford has clearly regenerated the Tory brand in Toronto. It had been flagging for so long. He came along with a conservative platform and validated that a conservative platform can indeed win in this city."
Old-hand conservative campaigners have noticed this at street level too. Gord Moore, campaign manager for Tory John Carmichael, candidate in Don Valley West, said he's getting orders for election signs in areas where he's never seen support before. "It's made us look at the riding map in a whole new way," he said. "We're looking very closely at exactly where Mr. Ford did well, breaking down precisely how many votes he got where. There's some greater receptivity to us in those areas."
In 2008, Mr. Carmichael lost to Liberal Rob Oliphant by 2,670 votes, and thinks the Ford factor this year may help make up the difference.
The Tories have pinpointed four Liberal candidates they think they can oust in the suburbs: Ken Dryden in York Centre, Bryon Wilfert in Richmond Hill, Mark Holland in Ajax-Pickering and Gurbax Malhi in Bramalea-Gore-Malton. And then there's Joe Volpe in Eglinton-Lawrence, where Mr. Ford garnered large support. Mr. Volpe squeaked out a 2,000-vote victory in 2008 and, this early in the federal campaign, it looks like it could go either way.
"People are saying that riding is one to watch," said Mr. Justice. "But I'm not sure. His voters love him."
The X-factor in all this could be Mr. Kouvalis. He refused to comment on this story, preferring to stay in the shadows, in contrast to his very public role in the Ford campaign, but Tory campaigners confirmed his presence in several Toronto ridings. That puts the former Ford teammates on a collision course. "Knowing him personally from the Ford campaign, I have tremendous respect for him," said Mr. Justice. "If there's one firm I don't want to go against in the country, it's his. If it happens we are battling in the same ridings, expect a great showdown."
With files from Adrian MorrowReport Typo/Error