So then, let me now reveal that I was working for a candidate for the Conservative Party of Canada. In our riding, we received a thorough butt-kicking from the electorate. Deservedly so.
When we saw record numbers of voters showing up for the advance polls, the writing was on the wall. All of us knew that when people stand in line that long, they are driven, passionate – and we knew there was no passion for our campaign.
It was an anti-incumbency wave.
Anatomy of a Defeat
Back in May, I had a telephone conversation with our senior party organizers in Ottawa. At the end of what was essentially a one-way conversation in which they gave orders, and I was dutifully taking notes, I asked if they wanted to hear what I was learning.
There was a very pregnant pause. Then one of the operatives reluctantly said “yes”. I told them that I was finding that the party’s policies were receiving good marks, but that the voters and party insiders in our riding were upset with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reported management style. He was less popular than the party. That was greeted with another long silence.
That’s why the mandatory candidate school was somewhat mystifying. National campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke, hired fresh from his disastrous turn at attempting to run the national broadcast service SUN TV, where his marketing strategy was to repeatedly and pointlessly attack the CBC, was up to his old tricks.
He told us that the entire campaign would be based on three principles: attack Justin Trudeau as not being ready; promote Stephen Harper as our sole defender against terrorism; promote Stephen Harper as the only leader capable of managing the economy.
Then, Teneycke said the strangest most ill-informed thing, which was echoed throughout the campaign by other Conservative operatives. “We’re not in a popularity contest.” What was he thinking? An election IS the biggest popularity contest.
Command and control
Local issues didn’t matter. We were told to forget about producing local brochures and materials – only use the customized versions of the materials that were on the party website. Most of the materials featured the unpopular Harper, and a bad photo of Trudeau equally prominent. We were told our job was largely to knock on doors and identify voters.
We felt like mere order takers, programmed to follow whatever headquarters demanded of us.
Oh, and among insiders the word is that no one knocked on more doors than defeated former Toronto-area Finance Minister Joe Oliver. A lot of good that did for him.
No amount of local canvassing and database manipulation could save us from a disastrous national campaign bent on leading with an increasingly unpopular leader, while conducting relentless personal attacks on one of his opponents.
We were handed this limiting formula and told that if we strayed from it, we could anticipate a stern rebuke from party “policeman” Jenni Byrne.
Trouble from the get-go
There was no vigor evident. We had trouble raising volunteers or getting people to attend our events – even when party luminaries visited. I spoke with other campaign managers; they were having the same problem.
To me, it felt like that moment when the ocean gets calm and withdraws from the shore … just before a tsunami. Indeed.
The 11-week campaign was ridiculously long. However, the messaging of the campaign wasn’t built for an 11-week steeplechase.
Negative campaigning has a limited lifespan. At a certain point, people no longer pay attention to it. The negative beat down on Trudeau tended to help the New Democrats at first, as progressives ran to them. Meanwhile, as Thomas Mulcair moved the NDP to the centre, the voters began to take a second look at Trudeau, perhaps wondering why he was worthy of constant attacks, and engaged by his debate performances.
One thing is certain: we never caught an updraft from all the attacks on Justin Trudeau. Quite the contrary, I believe they delivered the majority status to him.
New Canadians desert party
Mired in the low 30s in the polls, the Conservative Party began to thrash about. Teneycke and Byrne were quietly relegated to the second rank. In came Australian Lynton Crosby with his ultimately destructive niqab strategy. The strategy involved pointing out that Mulcair was not opposed to the wearing of a niqab in public spaces – a position very unpopular in Quebec where the NDP had been dominant in 2011.
It was intended to loosen the NDP grip on Quebec and garner support for the Conservatives; it did. The unforeseen consequence was that the strategy also eroded and decimated the carefully constructed Conservative values alliance with many new Canadians in areas like the 905 belt around Toronto. Along with the perceived insensitivity on the Syrian refugee front, new Canadians lost trust in the Conservatives and deserted the party in droves.
This gave way to a number of subsequent desperate campaign strategies.
There was the emphasis on the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), which may be a good deal, but reinforced a perception that the Conservatives were secretive and cold and moving ahead without public buy-in. We were selling an intricate deal that no one was buying.
Then there was the penultimate effort to sell Harper as that warm guy telling us at the end of his radio addresses: “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” No one was buying the softer, gentler Harper from a party and a leader who had spent the previous nine weeks bashing Trudeau.
I really knew we were cooked when the federal campaign adopted the Jim Prentice Alberta scorched earth desperation strategy. For the last week, the message became: if you vote for Justin Trudeau, the world will come to an end and (in Ontario) Kathleen Wynne will be your Vice Regent.
It was too late. What we had all quietly feared and never said, turned out to be true. We were doomed by a leader who overstayed his welcome and who surrounded himself with incompetent advisors.
Publisher’s Note - New Canadian Media makes every effort to be transparent in its editorial operations and offers this anonymous writing only as a way for our readers to better understand the electoral process that underpins Canadian democracy. This piece is intended to be non-partisan and consistent with our journalistic criteria of fairness and balance. NCM welcomes comment or reply to this column.