Friday, February 21, 2014

Five keys to political success from Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s chief of staff, Chima Nkemdirim

I attended a panel on political best practices this afternoon at the Liberal Party of Canada 2014 biennial in Montreal, and one of the speakers was Chima Nkemdirim, chief of staff to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Describing himself to cheers as a Calgary Liberal, which isn’t always an easy thing to be (I speak from experience as a Liberal BCer), Nkemdirim shared best practices, tips and lessons from Nenshi’s two successful campaigns for mayor – the first of which began with the candidate literally polling at 0 – including these five keys to political success.

All Politics is Local

Most people don’t know what level of government does what. They care about issues. If you want to run, you must spend timing learning what people care about locally, and tailor what you want to talk about in your campaign to the issues people actually care about in your community.

Networking is more powerful then door knocking

While Nkemdirim isn’t saying don’t door knock, he says it’s an incredibly inefficient way to reach people. While everyone thinks Nenshi tweeted his way to victory, at its centre he says Nenshi’s first campaign was built on word of mouth. It was designed around getting people to talk to their friends and neighbours and explain why they’re supporting Nenshi. They trained our volunteers to talk about Nenshi. They found out that people are really nervous to talk about politics, and they need help. Their advice was to identify why you’re passionate about a candidate, and if you’re passionate for that reason your friends might be as well – you don’t need to know the whole platform. Coffee parties were a key part of the Nenshi campaigns. If your friend invites you to a coffee party to meet the candidate, you’re more likely to actually come.

The more data the better

You really need to have all the information about your constituency, said Nkemdirim. Understand what happened in past federal, provincial and municipal elections. What are the key issues in the area? What keeps people up at night? Understanding those issues will help you build your platform. Do a lot of research on the incumbent. Read everything they’ve ever written and said, understand why their values aren’t in line with the community’s, and why your candidate is better.

The candidate does matter

Even in a party system where conventional wisdom says 80 per cent of people vote for the leader, Nkemdirim said he really believes the candidate does matter. There are three Alberta Liberal MLAs, and he said he believes each got elected because they were the best candidate. The campaign should be approached like a job interview.

You’ve got to stand for something

Nenshi and Edmonton Mayor Don Inveson talk about politics in full sentence – a phrase Nkemdirim said they borrowed from The West Wing. People aren’t stupid. They want you to get into detail about why you’re running, what you’re about, and why you’re the best candidate. They want to trust you’re the best candidate for the community; trust them with detailed answers.

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