Thursday, September 29, 2011

Liberal NDP Merger Doesn’t Add Up

Certain people in this country have a poor understanding of political mathematics.

I am talking about all those “progressives” out there who keep trumpeting the idea of a merger between the Liberals and NDP.

These people seem to think a new “Liberal - New Democratic Party” would both unite the Canadian left and topple the Harper regime in the next federal election.

As left-wing columnist Frances Russell put it, “The Liberals and New Democrats together could create a game-changing foe for the Conservatives.”

Now on the surface such an argument does make sense.

After all, the combined vote totals of the NDP and Liberals in the last federal election surpassed the Conservative vote total.

However this is where political math comes in.

In political math two plus two does not always equal four; sometimes it actually equals three.

In other words, if the NDP and Liberals were to join forces there is no guarantee their respective support bases would come along for the ride.

In fact, it’s likely a merger would alienate many Liberals and New Democrats, causing a substantial number of them to join the Conservatives.

Why is this?

Well for one thing, the Liberals and NDP represent two distinct and separate political cultures.

Yes, broadly speaking both parties are on the left side of the political spectrum, but ideology still divides them.

The NDP, for instance, is an ideologically-oriented party that stresses “class warfare” and “democratic socialism.” It also has close connections to the union movement.

The Liberals, on the other hand, are less dogmatic about their “left wing” ideals and more business-friendly.

Indeed, when it’s necessary Liberals will happily embrace fiscally conservative policies as did former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who managed to balance the federal budget.

And this is not surprising because there exists within the Liberal Party a large contingent of so called “Blue Liberals” who are socially liberal but who still believe in the profit-motive.

Such Blue Liberals would probably be more comfortable in the Conservative Party than in a party where meetings were held in union halls and where everybody called each other “brother and sister.”

Likewise, there would also be many New Democrats unhappy to see a merger take place with Liberals.

This is especially true for the more populist brand of New Democrats who view the Liberals as corrupt pawns of corporate Canada.

They might not stick around in a new Liberal/NDP amalgam.

In fact, many populist-style NDPers in Western Canada actually voted for the old Reform Party, so it’s not too much of a stretch to think they could switch allegiances to the Conservatives.

And there’s another variable merger proponents should consider: Prime Minister Stephen Harper would absolutely welcome and cheer on a union between his two political enemies.

It’s true.

Back in the days when we worked together at the National Citizens Coalition he explained to me he would like to see Canada evolve into a two party system, like they have in the United States, a system that pitted a right wing party against a left wing  party.

Harper’s view was that if you gave voters such a stark ideological choice, the conservatives would always have the advantage.

This is why, for instance, he has worked hard to eliminate the Liberal Party as a political force in Canada.

Of course, if the Liberals were to voluntarily become assimilated into the NDP socialist collective, well that would work just as well for his purposes.

In short, the correct mathematical equation representing a merger between Liberals and Conservatives would look like this:

Liberals + NDP = Happy Stephen Harper.

(This originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Beware Public Polls

Whenever the results of a public opinion poll are splashed across the pages of a newspaper, I immediately seek out large grains of salt.

The fact is, all such polls should be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Now don’t get me wrong.

It’s not that I think the numbers in public domain polls are inaccurate or that their methodology is wrong.

My problem is that while public polls are good at telling us what Canadians are saying about issues or candidates, they don’t necessarily tell us what Canadians are actually thinking.

And that’s a crucial difference.

To paraphrase the old line which likened statistics to bikinis, what public polls reveal is interesting. But what they hide is often vital.

What am I talking about?

Well, let’s imagine a dialogue between a pollster and Mr. Smith:

Pollster: Tell me Mr. Smith do TV ads have any influence on your buying behavior?

Mr. Smith: Absolutely not. TV ads do not influence me in anyway. I don’t even pay attention to them.

Pollster: Alright. Next question. What brand of toothpaste do you buy?

Mr. Smith: I always buy Crest toothpaste.

Pollster: Why?

Mr. Smith: Because everybody knows people who use Crest have 23 percent fewer cavities.

Clearly, there is a difference between what Mr. Smith says about TV ads and what he actually thinks.

And just like Mr. Smith, people will sometimes give pollsters answers that don’t necessarily reflect reality; they will instead give answers which they deem socially or politically correct.

I am sure, for example, there are many Canadians who would tell a pollster that “negative ads” don’t work, but tell the same pollster they voted against former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff because he was “just visiting.”

That’s why the only sure way to find meaning in a poll is through a rigorous crosstab analysis in which you cross reference answers.

Otherwise, a poll can be deceiving.

Case in point, are all those public opinion polls released during the last election, which consistently and wrongly predicted another Conservative minority.

It’s not that the data in those polls was faulty, it’s more likely they just publicized the wrong answers.

Imagine the pollster from our fictional example with Mr. Smith, releasing a poll under the headline: “Survey shows TV ads don’t work.”

And public polls released by advocacy groups with an agenda to promote, should be especially treated with caution.

For instance, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy recently released a poll which supposedly indicates ideological differences across partisan lines “have virtually disappeared” in Canada.

As Allan Gregg, one of the pollsters behind the survey told the media, “What I think you are seeing here is something almost the equivalent of end-of-ideology epoch. There is no major differences left among the electorate in terms of directionally where we should be going.”

The Manning poll also purportedly reveals that a “unique strain of conservatism, combining free market principles, moderation, incrementalism and social justice” has become the new Canadian “mainstream.”

But does this poll reflect reality?

I doubt it because the Manning poll simply tells us how respondents answered a series of value questions.

It found wide support for notions such as government “learning from the past" and "governments should be concentrating on the problems of today rather than tomorrow” and government should move with “caution rather than boldness.”

Plus it found support for other traditional conservative traits such as “self-reliance.”

Maybe this is evidence of a new mainstream orthodoxy, or maybe it’s just Canadians answering questions which seemed designed to elicit a certain answer.

Is anybody really against self-reliance? Who would oppose governments learning from the past?

If you asked different value questions, you might find completely different ideological answers.

Again, the Manning poll is telling us what Canadians are saying, but not necessarily what they are thinking.

And it’s what people actually think that really matters.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Conservative Fundraisers Might be Nervous

After having vanquished its foes in the last federal election, the Conservative Party of Canada looms over Ottawa like a political Colossus.

The government is stable; the party strong; its enemies relatively weak.

It’s good news all around – which ironically is bad news for Conservative fundraisers.

After all, nothing hurts political fundraising more than success.

That might sound strange, but it’s true.

To raise money from political donors you need to make an emotional pitch; you need to create a sense of crisis, you need to employ scare tactics.

That means using phrases along the lines of: “Send us as much money as possible and do it right away, or the country is doomed!”

The Conservatives always understood this dynamic.

For the past couple of years they would churn out regular direct mail fundraising appeals designed to strike fear into the heart of their donor base.

And since they led a minority government, they had plenty of effective ammunition because the inherent unstable political situation made it easy to create a sense of urgency.

Donors had to give money “right away” because a federal election was “imminent” or “just around the corner” and the Conservatives had to be prepared.

Plus they had a great enemy to target: the infamous Liberal-Socialist-Separatist Coalition.

The idea that such a Coalition could ever topple the Harper Tories and possibly form a government was enough to give any self-respecting Conservative donor nightmares.

So when the Tories asked for money donors were ready, willing and eager to open up their wallets and fork over the cash.

After all, the “Reckless Coalition” had to be stopped.

This in a nutshell is why the Conservatives were able to create what the media liked to call a “fundraising juggernaut.”

Indeed, last year the Conservatives raised a whopping $17 million in contributions and donations.

In contrast, the Liberals collected slightly more than $7 million.

It’s this massive edge in fundraising which gave the Conservatives an advantage over the other parties, when it came to buying advertising time.

But now the political dynamics are different.

For one thing the Conservatives have a majority and a fixed election date. That means we know the next federal election won’t take place until October 2015.

So the Tories can’t whip up hysteria among their base about an election that “could happen any day.”

But more seriously the threat of the Coalition is now gone. The Bloc has been effectively obliterated, the Liberals are in disarray and the NDP is in the midst of a possibly divisive leadership race.

In short, there is no real political threat on the horizon.

This is why fundraising will be more difficult for the Tories.

Sending out a letter that says something like, “Everything is just fine and dandy, but please send us money” won’t have much impact.

The other danger the Tories face is disillusionment.

There are probably many hard-core Conservative donors who were not happy with the Tory government’s fiscal record of increased spending and deficits.

Yet they were willing to cut the party some slack because it led a minority government.

However, that excuse is now gone.

And if the Tories don’t start providing more conservative style government many donors might stop giving money.

Then add in the uncertain economic times and general donor fatigue, and it all adds up to one thing: the Tory fundraising juggernaut could soon come to a screeching halt.

To make sure that doesn’t happen Conservative fundraisers will need to create both a renewed sense of urgency and a common enemy.

In short, they must figure out how to frighten donors out of their money.

Can they accomplish this?

Absolutely, they can.

In fact, the Tories are lucky because a new enemy has emerged which could keep their base mobilized and giving money.

I am talking about public sector unions.

Recently the Public Service Alliance of Canada announced it was going to wage a major PR offensive to oppose any Conservative efforts to reduce government services in the name of deficit reduction.

Apparently to get its message out, PSAC will use social media, email blitzes and will organize its community from coast to coast.

The Tories should pounce on this news for fundraising purposes.

They could pitch it like this: “The big union bosses are mounting a propaganda campaign to mislead Canadians. We must make sure Canadians know the truth. That’s why we need your most generous donation today… blah…blah….blah.”

The Conservatives could milk that angle for years, or at least until the next “crisis.”

Monday, September 12, 2011

Tories and Liberals Playing a Dangerous Game

In the onset of their provincial election battle, the Ontario Liberals and Progressive Conservatives are both playing a dangerous game.

It all started with a Liberal trap.

But to understand the trap, you first need to understand the Grand Liberal Strategy.

And that strategy is pretty basic: Sinking in the polls, and burdened with an unpopular leader in Dalton McGuinty, the Liberals really had only one realistic option: go negative on PC leader Tim Hudak.

After all, if you can’t increase your poll numbers the next best thing is to drive down your opponent’s numbers.

But how should the Liberals attack? Hudak doesn’t have much baggage to readily exploit.

Well, the answer was to paint the PC leader as some sort of Tea Party-loving, scary, right-wing extremist.

And this is where the trap comes in.

In their recently released platform the Liberals announced they would give give a tax credit to skilled “new Canadians” to help them get work experience.

Whether or not this plan was a good one economically is beside the point; it really only had one purpose – to draw out a Tory attack.

In other words, the Liberals wanted the PCs to denounce this plan because it would perfectly fit the political narrative they were constructing: “You see,” the Liberals would exclaim, “The Tories are right-wing bigots! They are anti-immigrant. They are intolerant.”

And, for their part, the Tories eagerly took the bait.

The PCs, in fact, lost no time in denouncing what they called McGuinty’s plan to subsidize “foreign workers.”

So now with the trap sprung, the Liberals are in full attack mode, with McGuinty demanding Hudak apologize for using the politics of division.

Some in the media see this as a huge victory for the Liberals.

But is it?

Although the Liberal plan was a tactical success, it could ultimately end up a strategic failure.

The fact is the Tory complaint about “foreign” workers, although not politically correct, will likely resonate with many Ontario voters.

Why is this?

Well to be blunt, xenophobia is what you might call a default mind set for human beings; instinctively we are suspicious and wary of outsiders.

That’s why one of the most powerful forces in politics is tribalism.

Voters will self-identify themselves as members of various groups and they don’t like it when politicians favour “Them” (outsiders) over “Us.”

And in this case, the way the PCs are defining it, they are standing up for “Us”  (Ontarians/Canadians) and the Liberals are standing up for “Them.” (Foreigners)

That’s a vote getter.

But the Tories have to be careful. If they come across as too strident on this issue it could generate a media-fuelled backlash. (Nobody considers themselves to be in the “bigot” group.)

Like I said, both sides are playing a dangerous game.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Problem with YouTube

When it comes to political communication the advent of YouTube, and other video-sharing websites, has been a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, YouTube allows both political campaigns and advocacy groups to inexpensively and quickly get their messages out to a potentially wide audience.

In other words, TV is no longer the only game in town as a communication medium for videos.

Now you can upload a political ad to a website and hope it generates enough buzz to go “viral.”

Unfortunately, however, the eagerness to create such viral campaigns has also helped to undermine the overall effectiveness of some political messaging.

What do I mean?

Well, instead of crafting ads to sway public opinion, political consultants and ad people are now producing spots that seemed designed solely to generate website “clicks”.

In short, getting a political point across is increasingly taking a backseat to creating spots which are sometimes funny, sometimes outlandish, or sometimes bizarre.

I saw this phenomenon first-hand last year while working in  New Hampshire as a consultant in a Republican primary race for a US Senate nomination.

 One of our opponents, a businessman named Jim Bender, came up with video spot called “Yum Yum.”

It featured an actor in an Uncle Sam costume greedily devouring cakes shaped like banks, cars and college diplomas. The more he ate, the more bloated Uncle Sam got.

The spot was certainly amusing and it generated a lot of good media coverage. One journalist gave it an “A” for creativity; a political newspaper called it a “must see” ad and it was featured on MSNBC.

So the Yum Yum ad generated media buzz and went viral, all the things you want a YouTube video to do.

But despite all that good stuff, the ad didn’t work where it really mattered; it didn’t help Bender win support.

Before the ads starting running he was mired in last place in the polls and that’s where he stayed right up to Election Day.

Yes his ad was entertaining, but it didn’t really give people a reason to think Bender would be an effective  US Senator.

Hence it was a creative success, but a political failure.

Meanwhile, here in  Canada the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative advocacy group, ran a similarly entertaining ad during the last federal election.

The NCC spot featured photos of the then three opposition leaders – Michael Ignatieff, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton -- superimposed on the bodies of the Three Stooges.

As the “Stooges” in the ad hit, bashed and poked each other, viewers were warned against “socialist” plans.

“Don’t be a stooge,” says the ad at the end “vote against socialism.”

Since the New Democrats enjoyed their most successful election in history, it seems the NCC’s video appeal to stop socialism wasn’t all that effective.

And that’s not surprising. The creators of the ad were so focused on creating a funny, imaginative ad, it seems they neglected to put any thought into their actual political message.

How does Moe bonking Curly on the head with a wrench cause Canadians to fear socialism?

Yet for the NCC that probably didn’t matter. All that mattered was amassing a large number of YouTube hits so they could brag about it to their members.

Now don’t get me wrong.

It’s perfectly fine to make political ads entertaining and humorous.

However, the humor must complement the overall strategic message you are trying to get across.

At the end of the day, after all, the goal isn’t just to make people laugh, it’s to win votes for your candidate or to win converts to your cause.