Friday, October 30, 2009

Winning Back the Hearts and Minds

Here are the results of the last several federal elections (click on the images for better resolution) across the Canadian electorate from two different lenses (wouldn't it be nice if polls always told us how many respondents actually planned to vote):

I'm hopeful that with Peter Donolo, one of the architects of the last Liberal revival, now put in charge of Michael Ignatieff's office, that a cold hard examination will take place of why the party has lost support over the years, where it went, and just how it can be earned it back, region by region, group by group.

I know that we can't over glamourize the "golden years", but Liberals would be foolish not to take lessons from just how under Jean Chretien they went from even trailing the NDP in the polls at one point to winning a landslide victory. With a focused, disciplined communication strategy based both on the failings of the government and their own concrete plans for the future (and yes a Thinkers Conference in Quebec) Liberals overcame the negative press and slowly built back up their support. By the time the election came Canadians knew what Liberals stood for and Liberals had a clear narrative for the campaign that appealed to a wide section of voters. They started out the campaign behind the governing party, but trounced everyone in the end.

That said, Liberals should recognize that the political climate differs in many fundamental ways now than then. There was no divided right, the PM will be in his 4th campaign vs. Ignatieff's 1st, the global economic crisis has led some voters cut the government slack over the deficit, the unprecedented government self-promotion ad buy, Chretien had 3 years to plan while Ignatieff may only have 5 more months, amongst other factors. Even so, the basic communications strategy from then can be applied to now to reverse the trends in the Liberals' favour.

But the message is just one part of the puzzle, who it is primarily directed to is another. Liberals would be wise to make a concerted effort to rebuild the winning voting coalition of 1993 (with some additions and subtractions here and there).

Many pundits have talked about the need for Liberals to win back women, minorities, and so called "mainstream Canadians" who have drifted off to other parties. This is definitely true, but I do hope it's not lost that it hasn't just been voters leaving to other parties that has cost Liberals support, but also the fact that many of the old supporters have stayed home in droves. A 12% drop in voter turnout since 1993 is nothing to scoff at - there were actually fewer total # of votes cast in 2008 than in 1993 despite the Canadian population growing by over 5.5 million since then. This represents a huge swath of voters that should not be given up on.

The Liberals' 1993 win was not only the best popular vote score the Liberals have received since 1980, but also the last time the winning party in a Canadian election received a larger share of the vote than there were non-voters. Stephen Harper wants to depress voter turnout further. He wants to turn off as many people as possible with relentless negatively and attempts to portray himself as being no different than were the Liberals. If he wins an election with only 20% of registered voters, that's fine by him.

But if Canadians who didn't vote in the last election think the Liberals are not all that different from the government then they'll be staying home again. They need to be convinced their vote would actually make a difference and that Liberals would truly represent their ideals. They need to hear concrete ideas on how the culture in Ottawa that Conservatives poisoned will be really changed for the good.

If Liberals can present themselves as a party unafraid of bold leadership on the issues of the day, and that will provide good honest government, this will provide an excellent contrast with Harper's way of governing.

It's clear that work has already begun to rebuild the winning coalition, but there is much more to do. Many Liberals have put forward ideas/advice in the past (including myself), some of which has already begun to be implemented, and some more practical than others, but no one should be under no illusions just how much work needs to be done both within the party and to broaden its appeal with the general public.

There are many months now to lay the groundwork for a narrative both about the party and for the next election and there will be an excellent chance to showcase the Liberal message and ideas at the Thinker's Conference in Montreal in March. It's going to take some major heavy lifting from the highest to the lowest levels of the party, but Liberals been in worse straights before and came out the other side victorious. I know they can do it again.

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Cari said...

Very well written. I can see Harper doing what you said, but I cannot believe he would stoop so low. The media is not helping at all.
How can the Liberals in a few months , get the people to think positive, when everything is so negative, about Ignatief, thanks to the media and most of all, Harper.

rockfish said...

Great post. I agree that as much of the work has to be undertaken at the grassroots level and behind the curtain -- when the ideas are presented it becomes 'news'. Right now, the negative conservative-friendly media (CONbots may scoff but count how many newspapers endorsed Harper last election, and then count how many entities own daily newspapers) are entirely focused more on the internal goings on of the Liberal party, more so than the actual responsibility and accountability of the government.
Again, great post.