Scott Reid is a political analyst and Principal at Feschuk.Reid. He previously served as Director of Communications to Prime Minister Paul Martin.
Maybe campaigns don’t matter after all.
Such a conclusion would be greeted as heresy by the high-priests of modern politics, who have long sermonized that once the writ drops, anything and everything is possible. Campaigns don’t just matter, we’ve been long counseled – they matter more than anything. And until last Thursday, that’s what I thought too.
But the most obvious takeaway from Doug Ford’s Ontario election victory is that events between May 9 and June 7 had not the slightest impact on voters’ intentions. If anything, the electorate showed itself to be defiantly resistant to the policies and appeals of individual party leaders.
Exhibit No. 1: The winner. Doug Ford’s performances ranged from wooden to weird. His platform was uncosted and incoherent. Almost daily he was dogged by scandals and suspicion. And none of that mattered a whit.
By nearly every conventional measure, Ford was a wretched candidate who ought to have been peeled apart by the pressure of a 30 day campaign. Which is just another way of saying that conventional measures don’t count for much.
The other campaigns experienced the same inability to leave any kind of significant mark prior to election day. For example, the NDP probably spent somewhere between one and two million dollars on their paid media. Good luck finding any evidence that their advertising affected a single voter.
As for the Liberals – and full disclosure, I was pitching in for Kathleen Wynne – their message shifted around from a focus on “care over cuts” to “sorry, not sorry.” It was a mad scramble to find something – anything – that would connect with concerned voters and resurrect ailing poll numbers. Nothing worked.
Truthfully, only two events seemed to affect the trajectory of Thursday’s vote. And both of those occurred prior to the writs being issued.
First, in April, the Liberals launched a suite of negative ads entitled “Real Doug Ford” that hit hard on what the new Conservative leader would do in key policy areas if elected. They worked. Within a week or two, Ford’s negatives shot up by 10 per cent and his party’s lead began to recede. The Conservatives were still out in front, but instead of super-majority territory with 45 per cent to 50 per cent of the popular vote, they settled into the 35 per cent to 40 per cent range where the Conservatives remained until voting day.
Second, the three leaders squared off at the CITY-TV debate on May 7 two days prior to the campaign’s official start. Horwath stole the show. She was fresh and inviting, positioning herself as the “above-it-all” candidate and walked away with a whack of new voters. Within 48 hours, the NDP’s numbers had skyrocketed by 15 per cent and the Liberals melted by roughly the same margin. It was the defining reset of Election 2018.
The combination of these two events gave Ontario a campaign that people had not been expecting, all before the campaign had even technically begun. And then… very little. For the next 30 days a lot happened. But not much mattered.
And that’s just not how it’s supposed to work. If there is one iron-laced law of modern politics, it is that campaigns matter. You can’t turn on a television, radio or podcast without some sage veteran repeating that well-heeled phrase.
So maybe it’s a one-off. An anomaly that will quickly be corrected and put behind us.
But I’m not so sure.
The ability of voters to consume but not quite digest the daily bread of a modern political campaign is a particular by-product of our times. And it comes with lasting lessons about the future of how elections will be run - not to mention how our democracies will function.
Speaking objectively, what would even make us think that campaigns would have much chance of mattering? In an era of cable-cord cutters, low-information voters and siloed communities of online confirmation bias, how could we imagine that getting in tomorrow’s newspaper, or running a picturesque leaders’ tour are worth a sweet damn? At a time when big data disciplines organizations and institutions to feed people’s own opinions back to them, how – or why – would you even go about changing someone’s perspective?
Affirmation, not persuasion, is the operating principle of analytics. And analytics is the operating system of everything in today’s world – from building a winning hockey team to competing for the Premier’s chair.
To a degree, the Conservatives seem to have figured all this out first. It’s reflected in their obsessive preoccupation with feeding their own base – to the exclusion of near everything else. Certainly, Ford’s team recognized early on that their vote was almost invulnerable to what traditional news outlets had to say. Fitted with an early lead, they were only too happy to design their days to just pass the time and rely on direct digital outreach to the already converted. FordNation Live wasn’t a tactic. It was a philosophy.
So exactly how will campaigns in the future reach voters? Or, more to the point, how will they convince voters whom they can barely reach how to change their view and switch their vote? It’s the core question of contemporary politics.
Because if campaigns don’t matter – it leaves one to wonder: What does?