Reflections on a Shellacking

In response to an innocent inquiry from a friend of mine on facebook, I posted the following reflection on supporting the Liberals during the 41st General Election. I served as the Campaign Manager for Kris Stewart, the Liberal candidate for Kelowna--Lake Country.

Writing this was therapeutic.

To be honest, I expected we'd lose a few seats going into the election. Despite the fact that the Liberal platform was sound and developed over the course of a year; the OLO had been honed organizationally by the Leader's tour last summer and the Open Mike tour through the fall and winter; and the Party had sufficient resources to mount a good campaign; a couple of things were still bothering me about our chances.

We couldn't consistently poll over 30%
Ignatieff was out hustling for votes all over the country, appearing in swing ridings multiple times. There were clear instances where we were on the right side of an issue but it wasn't moving public sentiment: Afghan detainees, long-form census, illegal migrants, mandatory minimums, deferring corporate tax cuts. It didn't seem to matter.

The Conservatives withstood all scandals
Though there were really egregious breaches of explicit promises made by Harper, of checks and balances in our democratic institutions, of the duty of Cabinet to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, the Conservatives were never punished for it by shifts in public sentiment. They hovered at 35-40% as a cascade of malfeasance poured out of the PMO. And the opposition triggering an election for yet another abuse of democracy seemed to many Canadians a self-indulgent nuisance. Even Bev Oda wound up walking away with an outright majority (54% of the vote in Durham). What message does that send?

The attack ads work
We’ve all seen the polls that put Ignatieff’s approval at around 15%. He was never able to capitalize on the goodwill that accompanied his acclaimation in the spring of 2009. Some of the responsibility for that is his, some is the Party’s, and some belongs to the Conservative spin machine. I was watching TV with my twins and froze the PVR on a frame from an Ignatieff attack ad—red background, Ignatieff grinning and waving in black and white—when Gabriel looks up at me and says, “Michael Ignatieff. He’s not here for you.” My six-year-old. He doesn’t know who Ignatieff is or give a rat’s ass about politics, but this message sunk in for him, and for every Canadian paying as much attention as he was to politics. There are a lot more of those than you think.

Conservatives were prepared for and wanted an election
They had revved up their anti-Ignatieff ad campaign yet again, with more than 4,000 TV spots. This was supported by a government-sponsored campaign for the Economic Action Plan, ads that were branded like the Conservative Party. The tens of millions spent on these ads outside the writ period were not subject to election spending limits, or rebates for that matter. The Conservatives invested a lot of capital in laying the groundwork for a campaign.

Targeting ridings works
The Conservatives were very focused on swinging the dozen ridings they needed to achieve a majority. Whether that meant targeting ethnic communities, wooing veterans or volunteer firefighters, pouring infrastructure spending in, attacking individual incumbents, parachuting in star candidates, trotting out the PM in visit after visit to factory and chamber of commerce events—whatever it took, they were going to add the 60,000 or so votes they needed in just a few ridings to push for a majority. I saw that leaked memo from Kenney’s office and it affirmed that impression.

Once the campaign was underway, I thought Gilles Duceppe could put off our coalition albatross by implicating Harper in the 2004 negotiations. Harper remained consistently on message, and limiting media to five questions per day ensured that. Stable Majority Government. No Reckless Coalition. Lower Taxes, More Jobs. Did you know that the phrase “the Ignatieff-led coalition with the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois” appears in the Conservative platform FORTY TIMES? I counted. Ignatieff’s refreshing openness to questions unfortunately led to compromising answers, and a dilution of his message. I felt absolutely betrayed by his statement a week before the election that he would entertain participating in an NDP-led coalition.

The NDP surge in Quebec at the Bloc’s expense legitimized a migration from Conservative or Liberal support to the NDP as a credible alternative in Anglophone Canada. Layton had always polled well on approval, twice Ignatieff’s numbers and always ahead of Harper. His blow to Ignatieff on attendance in Parliament stung. It didn’t matter that the platform the NDP floated couldn’t hold water. Virtually no one looks at those documents, let alone critically.

Back to your question. I did work tirelessly on this campaign. Along with many other volunteers in our riding. We conducted a well-run, on-budget, high-profile campaign that I’m proud of, with an army of over seventy volunteers. There were some glitches and things I’d do differently. But they wouldn't amount to much of a change to the bottom line. Our campaign got more Liberal support than any other in the BC Interior. And we still were in third place and won only 11.8% of the vote. It is a dismal number.

I used to believe the old saw that politics is local. I understand better how our local potential is dictated by the success of the national campaign. In exceptional circumstances we can crack the ceiling of regional party affiliation tendencies and leader support. Look at Ralph Goodale in Wascana. He got nearly half of all Liberal votes in the province of Saskatchewan. But he is certainly exceptional.

I am taking an active role in the renewal of the Party. That will have to do for now.

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