THUNDER BAY, ON -------- April 3, 2011 ---- I've just been reading some tweets from @acoyne - Andrew Coyne of Maclean's and CBC. His complaint is that elections are always covered in the same way: Why are you ahead? Why are you behind? Why are you such a loser?
He has a point. We do get so fascinated by the horse race that we never get around to wondering why the horses are racing in the first place. Worse yet, coverage becomes absolutely presidential in nature. Everything becomes all about the leader, what he (or rarely she) says/does/wears. The daily gleanings are aligned into constellations and a political horoscope is drawn.
I'm as guilty of this as anyone. The first reason for covering the horse race is that ... it's easier. The groundwork is done for the earnest columnist by the National Press Gallery asking questions and filing daily to television, the big papers and associated internet versions of both.
The second reason is that if the earnest columnist is going to spend two or three hours typing out delightful metaphors and grave analysis it would be nice if all this deathless prose was actually read by someone. And while the usual cliche is that familiarity breeds contempt, familiarity also breeds interest. You know (or think you know) Steve, Mike, Jack, Gilles and plucky Liz. Actually what you know is an image created of them, but that's a topic for another time. The bottom line is that you want to know how they're doing, as individuals and as party leaders and as potential Prime Ministers.
The third and final reason (as this introduction finally creaks towards a conclusion) is that you don't feel a need to know what you don't know. What is the situation on the ground in North Battleford, Chicoutimi or Moncton? If you live there, you care. If you don't live there ... the Canucks have a helluva chance at the Cup eh?
And yet that is the battleground. 308 seats and one has to win 100+ of them in order to set the agenda for the nation, with or without coalition partners on either a permanent or piecemeal basis.
My promise when I began this column was to reveal the actual working structure of electoral politics. So - how are individual ridings actually won or lost?
First - and this will seem obscenely obvious - you must know your riding. In specific, what are its fears? People vote to eliminate fear, not to achieve dreams. That is why negative advertising regrettably works. "Here's the scary sh!t. Vote for Me and that scary sh!t won't happen." And yes, voting patterns do emerge from that raw, gutshot level.
Now, when you have identified the fear, what are you going to do about it? Is the fear unemployment, high energy prices, not enough doctors, the highway is lousy ... ? Whatever It - the big fear - whatever It is you must address it. You're the tailor with the fly swatter who killed twelve with one stroke. Prove it.
This is the point where failed campaigns ... er, fail. One of two things happen in a failed campaign: either the National campaign is repeated chapter and verse, and/or the wrong issues are addressed.
Example: Not long after I got out of the speechwriting business (I still do some, but only for candidates I absolutely trust) , there was a provincial election. I was still tangentially involved in party politics so I was literally in the room when a big box of election material arrived from the Liberal Party of Ontario. They were flyers talking about rent control with pictures of highrises in full colour. Nice looking, literally slick to both the eye and touch. My advice: burn them. Why? There are no highrises in the riding.
Therefore, the local candidate must sift through the broader campaign themes to find the ones that will address the identified riding fears. You will get little or no help from the Party's head office, because a) the head office is usually staffed by idiots, and b) they are idiots because they don't know your riding. You do.
Secondly, if you happen to be the incumbent, know and obey the first rule of salesmanship. Under-promise and over-deliver. Example: You need to get your car fixed. If the mechanic tells you it will be ready Tuesday and it's ready Wednesday, he's a shiftless layabout. If he tells you Thursday and it's ready Wednesday, he's your guy, he's the man, his name is going to be mentioned favourably to all your friends.
The worst example of that I ever saw was an incumbent who, at his campaign launch, wrote down all the promises he'd made in the previous election. Now, he hadn't delivered on any of them, "But this time will be different!" I knew he was doomed.
We'll be looking closer at the ridings in Northwestern Ontario in coming weeks, but for now, watch the local campaigns as they develop. Which touch a chord in your heart? Which don't? Make your wagers accordingly. I will be.
Be seeing you.