Ken Boessenkool: You’re probably watching the wrong election battle
The national media and Twitter is where the nostalgic old-timers hang out to be entertained. The swing voters are on TikTok and Facebook.
By: Ken Boessenkool
Politics is war by peaceful means. And in politics, as in war, fighting the last war can be a terrible mistake.
So when I saw the Conservative campaign release its platform on day two of the current campaign, I had a sense of nostalgia, that the way I once did things has come and gone. And that’s a good thing.
It was my role in 2004, 2006 and 2011 to write what we called “the script” for the Harper campaign. A “script” is the plan for how the platform gets rolled out. It is the positive, proactive side of the campaign. (There was a separate group responsible for the reactive side of the campaign as well as a group for planning attacks on — I mean contrasts with — our principle opponents.)
In each of those campaigns we did daily announcements of new policy up until a couple days before the national debate, when we dropped the full platform. There were a number of reasons for doing so. First, one of Stephen Harper’s biggest challenges was that voters he needed to bring to the Conservative column were worried about a secret agenda. By dropping a new policy idea each day, we were trying to convince these voters that Harper had a very busy non-secret agenda that would leave him little time for any secret agenda. This worked particularly well in 2005/06 when the Liberals called an 83-day campaign that straddled Christmas. I believe we dropped about 60 individual policies on 60 individual days during that campaign. We took off a few days over Christmas, and then rebooted in January by repeating the first five days of the campaign, which became our “Five Priorities.”
We didn’t expect our target voters to remember all of our promises (in post-election surveys they remembered the GST promise and maybe one more — a surprising number of moms remembered $100/per month and/or the Sports and Arts Tax Credits), but we wanted them to remember that we made a lot of them. Which they did. Our very large non-secret agenda made these voters much less worried about any secret agenda.
The second reason for doing an announcement a day and dropping the platform late was because there were three ways for the national campaign and the leader to reach out to voters. First was advertising, largely on TV. But advertising is only good for hitting two or maybe three messages over the course of the campaign and was difficult to target to specific ridings or specific individuals.
The second way to reach a large number of voters was through the national media who followed the campaign around and broadcast messages through newspapers and television that people in those days read and watched. And the national media had voracious appetites for not just content, but new content. Doing something new every day fed that appetite, or at least had the best shot of accomplishing that, assuming no candidate (including the leading candidate) did something dumb or noteworthy that threw off our message. And our target voters, perhaps not every day, but often enough, read or saw those column inches and news broadcasts that were filled with our messages and pictures.
The third way to reach voters in the good old days (that’s nostalgia talking) was through local media in key ridings. We spent a lot of time before and during the campaign deciding where we went — which target ridings — and what messages resonated with key voters in those target ridings. When a leader passed through Peterborough, for example, they could have expected wall-to-wall coverage in the local papers and television that day, and if they are lucky, the next day as well. It was well established that a trip from a leader on the right message in the right place could give the local candidate from your party a small bump in popularity — the kind of bump that in these swing ridings could make the difference.
Between 2006 and 2011 a few of us wrote a memo suggesting that we forgo these big national tours. In the first place the national media was already becoming a shell of its former self. Local media was also disappearing. Better to take all the money spent on the national tour and redirect it towards advertising, we argued, and just broadcast the leader from a studio in Ottawa.
This thinking was probably too far ahead of its time. What brought it up to time was social media.
As the Conservative campaign learned to its dismay in 2015, social media — especially Facebook — is how most swing voters got their information. And the wonderful thing about social media is that you don’t have to be there in person, something we’ve all gotten a little more used to, sadly, in the last year.
So it makes even less sense today than it did in 2015 to be out on a national tour and hold off releasing a platform until the later stages of an election. Social media makes it imperative that campaigns craft multiple messages, on multiple policies, to multiple audiences all at the same time. Campaigns no longer have to wait for the Globe and Mail and Global News and the Peterborough Examiner to write and talk about our tough-on-crime platform on a given day in the campaign … They can now design the message and send it directly to Peterborough swing voters starting on the first day of the campaign, and every day after that, via Facebook. Or Tick Tock. Or Instagram. Or some other social site I’ve never heard of, but the smart campaigns know well.
In fact, keeping the national media and Twitter (the one social media platform that still acts like its 2006) partisans entertainedis a small, mostly irrelevant sideshow for a sophisticated national campaign. Almost no swing voters, and certainly no young voter, turns on CBC, CTV and/or Global News each evening to help them decide how to vote. They listen to their Facebook friends. Or TikTok. Or Instagram. Or some other social site…
Which is why you’ll find aging political hacks like me waxing nostalgic in the national media and on Twitter while the smart campaigns get on with fighting the next war on Facebook. Or TikTok. Or Instagram. Or some other social site…
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