Thursday, October 23, 2008

Election Post-Mortem, Part Four: The Liberal Party

Liberal Party

Was this a good campaign for the Liberals? One look at the results would say clearly not. Was it a well executed campaign? Not really, but it also wasn't as badly executed as some might think. Many of the seeds that led to the poor showing on e-day were planted well before the writ was ever dropped. And it was those seeds that, in the end, largely sealed our fate.

I’ll admit now that I was wrong when I initially dismissed the Conservative Party’s “not a leader” ad campaign to brand St├ęphane Dion. The ads seemed childish and unduly negative to me; I didn’t think they would be effective. But they were. They planted an image of Dion in the minds of Canadians that we didn’t have the financial ability to effectively counter. That perception, once cemented in the public mindset, couldn’t be changed in the short timeframe of a five-week campaign, no matter how effectively we campaigned. We came close to getting past it, but again late developments served to underscore that preset narrative.

Along a similar track, the other major challenge in this campaign was, sadly, the Green Shift. It was absolutely the right policy, I stand by that. But it’s not enough to have the right policy. You have to be able to communicate it, and to sell it. As much as I’d hoped we could, we couldn’t. The messaging was muddled and confused, and the benefits weren’t clearly distilled into soundbite form so Canadians could understand. Moreover, just as on the leadership issue, we lacked the resources to counter the Conservative ad campaign to negatively brand it as a tax on everything.

What I kept hearing on the ground was that I would vote Liberal except for two things: Green Shift, and Dion not a leader. Both relate directly back to the financial resources of the Conservatives, and our inability to effectively counter. The importance of the pre-writ financial disadvantage can’t be understated. There are larger, deeper issues that absolutely contributed to our vote decline, but these two issues were crucial.

Once the campaign was underway, I didn’t think we ran a particularly bad campaign. It just wasn’t a particularly good one either. We can at least say that it was relatively error-free ball. There weren’t the major gaffes that plagued the Conservatives in the early going. We did lose a few candidates, but they were dispatched swiftly and without lingering impact.

My largest beef with out campaign is that we didn’t communicate effectively with the Canadian public. We had a lot of good policies on a wide range of issues; from post secondary education to immigration reform to, of course, the environment. But it’s not enough to just have good policies, you need to be able to communicate them, to distill them down to what it means for Joe the Plumber’s Canadian cousin. You can’t hit them with numbers and percentages and grand visions, you need to make it simple. The Green Shift will save you X. People don’t have the time to wade through policy documents, and the media aren’t interested in analyzing them (they should be, but that’s another story). This is something the Conservatives, with inferior policies, did far better.

We were also slow to move off our message track to respond to breaking news and developments. Frankly, the decision to start de-emphasizing the Green Shift was the right one. What was wrong was to a) say we were de-emphasizing it, and b) change our minds the next day. We also weren’t successful at trying to put it in an economic context.

When we did, finally, begin focusing on the economy our numbers began to rebound. If you think the e-day results were bad, if the election has been held mid-campaign it would have been closer to 93 Campbell than 84 Turner. In the wake of the US downturn and Conservative inaction and lack of empathy, we were able to capitalize on a strong debate performance by Dion and good economic messaging to begin moving up in the polls and get back in the game.

Our advertising also improved as the campaign went on. We waited too long to go negative, in my view. Week two and we were still trying to sell the Green Shift in our ads. We were too far down in the polls for such a strategy to be effective. And then when we did go negative, the ads were only half effective. They were great as a negative piece but there was no conversion, no why vote for us. We shook the votes lose, but lose they stayed. Or they went Green. We did finally correct that with the inclusion of positive backends to the ads with the “always there for you” tagline, and these combo ads I thought were well done and effective.

With a good message and good messaging a minority was moving back inside the realm of possibility, but then the wheels fell off. I don’t want to overstate the impact of the ATV/Duffy saga, but in my view it served to reinforce the Dion/Not a leader Conservative messaging that we were beginning to overcome. Like the culture cuts were a small thing that reminded Quebecers why they don’t like Stephen Harper, the interview outtakes reminded Canadians they weren’t sure about this Dion guy.

In the last week, Conservatives were able to right the ship and, over turkey, Canadians made a decision. I really don’t like Harper or his policies, the Liberals have better plans, but I just don’t think Dion is the leader that can steer us through tough times, seemed to be their conclusion, and most of Canada swung Conservative.

Looking back, the leader does clearly need to accept a good portion of the responsibility for the campaign result. The language was an issue, although it was improving and progress was significant. I can’t blame him for the accent, he was making the effort, but I heard about it from too many voters to dismiss the impact. More importantly though, he seemed too set in his ways and unwilling to listen to the advice of those more experienced in the retail side of politics. He stuck to the Green Shift for too long. We spent far too much of the campaign putting out policy. And we waited far too long to go on the attack, a shift he seemed to resist to the end. Once we did go on the attack the polls began to move, but it was too late.

To lay all the blame on the leader though would be short-sighted and self-defeating. Our vote share has been declining since 2000 because of much deeper issues in the Liberal Party. We no longer know what we stand for, or for whom, and until we figure it out Canadians won’t know either.

If you examine the riding vote totals we won a lot of tight races, but we lost a great deal of tight races too. And the tight races shouldn’t have been that tight. This speaks to a failure to get out our vote. And that problem has two prongs: motivating our voters, and motivating our volunteers.

Voter turnout was down once again in this election. And many of those that stayed home were Liberals. They didn’t like the other parties, but they weren’t motivated enough to come out and mark an X for us either. We need to address that.

We also didn’t have the volunteers on the ground to run an effective Get Out the Vote operation. We couldn’t motivate our grassroots to spend the day volunteering to work polls and phone ID’d voters to the level the Conservatives and NDP did, or to assist in the Voter ID effort pre-writ. We need to examine why our Liberal grassroots has been sitting on the sidelines, and find a way to re-energize them and get them back involved.

As a post-script, I think it needs to be said the non-aggression pact with the Greens was a strategic mistake. There was nothing in it for us. We elevated Elizabeth May and the Greens, and as a result they pulled votes we could have competed for.

Lessons: If we’re taking lessons from this campaign, they should be this: build an effective fundraising machine to be able to counter Conservative branding, develop policy from the ground-up that all Liberals can rally behind, re-define our brand and what it means to be Liberal and to vote Liberal, give people a reason to come out and vote Liberal, and re-energize the grassroots so they’ll get involved again. Leave these issues unresolved and a new leader won’t make a lick of difference.

Leadership issues: Dion has already announced his resignation, so it’s moot. I hope the issues identified though will be part of the debate in the upcoming leadership race, and that Dion uses his time left in the job to take a crack at them.

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partisan_non_partisan said...

Good post-mortem Jeff. Illustrates why you're one of the best Libloggers around.

I was kind of hoping you'd have some insight on the BC Liberal Team's campaign. Surely, they were not pleased with losing hard-won ground in BC.

Ti-Guy said...

Partisan Liberal bloggers should take one tip from the Blogging Tories...tighten the message discipline and turf the trolls/sock puppets. I'm still not sure if the Conservatives didn't actually assign partisans their own Liberal blog to squat at and troll, but the constant dialogue in bad faith, rumour-mongering and repetition/amplification of Conservative messaging was completely unnecessary, distracting and a waste of limited resources.

One of the reasons the negative ad campaign was so effective was that everyone was talking about it...the trolls were using them for talking points and the Liberals were reacting in defense.

The mainstream media, or course, was not talking about the negative campaign all that critically but simply "reporting" on it, which amplified the negative messaging even more.

Demosthenes said...

Well written.

One thing to remember: It's the strategy, not the methods. "Not a leader" and "tax on everything" were just specific permutations of the general Rovian strategy; had it been, say, Rae and a health care thing, it would have been "socialist Bob" and "fiscally irresponsible".

And ti-guy is absolutely right about LibLoggers. People like Jeff are both a resource for the party AND a target for the trolls. Again, this is straight out of the Rovian playbook: prominent progressive bloggers like Atrios and Matt Yglesias and Kos and Digby (and myself, at times, though I don't pretend to their prominence) have been specifically targeted by trolls hoping to sow dissention and get out conservative talking points.

That's why building a community is important: because you need other bloggers and commentators to play the same role the Kossacks and Atriettes and whatnot do in chasing off the trolls.

(It also helps you recognize that the media ain't necessarily your friends. Kinsella's weak protestations aside, the private Canadian broadcasters like CTV and Global have clearly made their choice. Make them eat it. And remember who your friends really are.)

Oh, and as for that fundraising machine... Liberal bloggers need to be part of it too. Look at initiatives like ActBlue. It does work.

Ti-Guy said...

I'm always leery about importing American ways of doing things, since so much of what they do is focused on money (which, as we all know, is the root of all evil), but they have some strategies in dealing with bad faith dialogue and getting around a news media that doesn't do its job anymore. Mostly, however, I think American progressive bloggers have been lucky because the Right and the Left in the US no longer exist in the same reality and don't even speak the same language anymore.

I'm still very much interested in hearing from principled C(c)onservatives ((if there are any left) and being exposed to challenges that help people refine their thinking but what we're mostly seeing is amplification of negative messaging and topic derailment.

The Liberal Party can coordinate fundraising through online initiatives if it wants, but personally, that's not where my priorities lie. As I've said elsewhere, if more money is just going to into more advertising, that's really only good for PR and marketing types and for the careers of political operatives and not citizens of a democracy. I don't think the Conservatives really got value for the money they squeezed out of the membership and blew on advertising, anyway.

A BCer in Toronto said...

pnp, I think the challenges in BC were much the same as I outlined for the country overall. I think the green shift was doubly hard to sell in BC given the provincial version, we had to counter a lot of false propaganda about double taxation and tax at the pumps. Otherwise, the challenges were much the same, as are the remedies.