Seven lessons from the federal election

Although I’ve been involved in lots of elections as a political staffer, I spent most of this past federal election on the sidelines. I’m okay with that. Elections are grueling, physically demanding, intense affairs. They’re like having a final exam worth 100 percent of your course grade every day for a month (or, in the case of this election, for 78 days straight). Political staffers don’t eat well, they don’t take care of their bodies, they drink way too much coffee and they work ridiculous hours.

Despite all of that, politics is worth it. It’s one of the most creative and influential professions out there. There aren’t a lot of jobs where the outcome of your work matters so much to so many people. I think that’s one reason so many religious people are drawn to work in politics – it really is a calling. And it’s a calling that I wish more people would consider following.

So if that’s the sort of things that interests you – and you’re considering either running in a campaign or helping to run a campaign in the future, I’ve got some advice for you. And take it from me – having been on both the losing and winning side of election night – it’s way more fun to win than to lose. So here are seven lessons from this election that you can take into your own winning campaign.

Ideas matter

Kim Campbell once said that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues” but that wasn’t the case in this election. In fact, in my experience, voters pay a lot more attention to the fine points of a party’s policy than most people expect. If you look at this past campaign, for example, people weighed the pros and cons of complicated topics like income splitting, the best way to handle ISIS, decriminalization of marijuana, infrastructure spending and so on. The Liberal Party put a lot of time and effort into developing ideas that would make sense to Canadians discussing those ideas around the dinner table, and voters rewarded them for it.

Events matter

In almost every campaign, there are outside events that test the leaders’ judgement. In the middle of this federal campaign, for example, the Syrian refugee crisis erupted. The world saw the photo of little three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach after his family tried to flee Syria for Canada. The Harper Government’s response to the crisis was slow. When they finally spoke, it was about the need to keep out terrorists rather than provide shelter to refugees. Later, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander suspended his campaign to look into the crisis, but it was too late. Alexander lost his seat. So when Trudeau thundered: “You don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign,” it both recalled the Kim Campbell line, and echoed the sentiment of many Canadians.

Pictures matter

There’s an old saying: most people watch elections with the sound off. It’s an idea that goes back to the famous televised debate between Richard Nixon and JFK. People listening on the radio thought Nixon won. People who saw Nixon sweating and looking uncomfortable on TV thought Kennedy won.

Today, very few of us watch the news with the sound on. Stations like CP24, which play news nonstop, are always on in the background at bars, restaurants and on subway platforms. Many of us also see event photos in our Facebook News feed or on Google News, even if we don’t read the articles. So if campaigns can create images that show a leader looking ready to become Prime Minister – surrounded by people, shaking hands, smiling, with party colours around them – those images will sway voters. In this campaign, Harper’s pictures were rigid and posed. Mulcair looked creepy and solitary. Trudeau looked relaxed, confident and happy – and always surrounded by people or looking fit and active.

The old rules don’t matter

When the Conservatives came out with their “Justin Trudeau – he’s just not ready” series of ads, conventional wisdom said it was a devastating attack on his leadership abilities that would crush him in the election. When the Liberals came back with their response – Trudeau looking intently into the camera and saying he wasn’t “ready to watch hard-working Canadians lose jobs and fall further behind” – conventional wisdom said it was a huge mistake. Both were wrong. By painting Trudeau as “not ready” at the start of a long campaign, the Conservatives gave the Liberals lots of opportunity to prove them wrong. Every time Trudeau looked ready – in debates and events – it made the Conservatives look like liars. And people thought Trudeau’s counter-ad – where he embraced the “not ready” language and turned it back on the other party – was gutsy and brave.

Hope wins

Another piece of conventional wisdom is that negative messages win elections. If you can make people scared of the alternative, the theory goes, they’ll choose your party. That hasn’t always been true. As we saw in Obama’s first campaign, people are often more motivated by hope and change than fear or risk. If you can show voters how your government would make things better or different, that’s a more compelling argument than “the other guys would mess things up.”

Sometimes, those can go hand in hand. It’s okay to say “if you vote for us, things will be better but if you vote for the other guys, things will be worse.” But, as we saw in the failure of the Conservatives in this election (and in the last few Ontario elections), if you can’t convince people that you would do something or build something positive for them, fear of the other choice is not enough to make them vote for you. That’s why the Liberal message: “Better is always possible” resonated with people.

Hard work wins

All the people working behind the scenes are crucial to success in an election. At the local level, you need people who will identify voters, put signs in the ground, work with local media, make sure the candidate is at the right events, print and distribute flyers and get the vote out. Centrally, you need great strategists, marketers, writers, researchers, social media experts, spokespeople, policy analysts, caucus relations people and war-room responders all working like a well-oiled machine for long hours with no pay. The best team – the one with the best people working harder and smarter than the other guys – will win the election. In this election, that was the Liberals.

Voters always get it right

In his concession speech, Harper said: “the people are never wrong.” In the end, that’s what democracy is all about. For a few weeks, our leaders do their best to give people a reason to choose them or their party. As voters, we listen, and we decide. And we all agree to live with those results, and trust those results and the judgement of the people.
As Winston Churchill once put it: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”


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