Just one day after Justin Trudeau was anointed leader of the Liberal Party in April of 2013, the Conservative Party unleashed a barrage of attack ads saying he was in “way over his head.”
One of the ads mocked Trudeau for having been a camp counselor, rafting instructor, drama teacher and boasting one of the worst attendance records in the House of Commons. “Now he thinks he can run Canada’s economy?” – it sneered over footage of Trudeau undressing and prancing around on a stage wearing a tank top.
Trudeau had run smack into the buzzsaw of the Conservative Party’s election machine — an entity that’s always on “permanent campaign” mode. To the Tories, electioneering is a year-round operation – not just started when the writ is dropped – that’s allowed Stephen Harper to win three elections in a row while mauling and belittling his opponents.
Trudeau, for example, has been a constant target of Conservative ads over the past two years, with the latest portraying fake job interviewers listing all the reasons why “He’s Just Not Ready.” And it seems to be working: the Liberals are currently languishing in the 25 per cent range.
For election consultants, the Conservatives’ success at the polls is no accident. “Harper is going to win [the next election],” predicts Warren Kinsella, former campaign strategist for Jean Chrétien and a well-known Toronto-based election consultant.
“He’s got a very efficient vote, he has a whole bunch of new seats in the British Columbia and Ontario and Alberta, and those are in ridings where he’s highly competitive. And he’s going to have the ability to motivate those voters because the quality of his research is better than the other two parties.”
On one hand, it’s no mystery why Harper has ruled the roost since 2006 despite lacking charisma or popularity: the progressive vote is split between the Liberals, NDP, Green Party and Bloc. Due to Canada’s first-past-the post electoral system, a politician can become prime minister with a mere 34 per cent of the vote – and garner a majority with just 38 per cent (the Conservatives won a majority in 2011 with less than 40 per cent).
Indeed, the Chrétien Liberals won three back-to-back majorities between 1993 and 2000 largely because the right-wing vote was split between Reform, the PC and Canadian Alliance parties. Now the same problem is bedeviling the left.
“Until the progressive side gets its act together, Harper is going to win because [the progressives] are splitting the vote,” observes Kinsella. “It’s a perfect cleavage.”
Although splitting the vote helps Harper, it overshadows how the Tories exploit the weaknesses of our electoral system and have built a well-financed, well-oiled machine that’s increased their seat count every election cycle since 2004.
“When it comes to tactical execution, these guys are very effective,” concedes Scott Reid, former deputy chief of staff and spokesperson for Paul Martin Jr. during the 2004 and 2006 elections. “They parse the electorate, they rarely in my mind bother to message anyone beyond their base… Harper’s no dummy, that’s for sure. It’s not so much a strategic brilliance as it’s tactical excellence where they’ve prospered.”
Many progressives might assume Harper’s election machine cannot overcome his current negatives – including a faltering economy, the Senate spending scandal, Bill C-51 and the fact that nearly all of his highest-profile ministers have quit. Yet as the Republican Party in the US has demonstrated, being unpopular or even despised does not preclude you from winning.
"It’s an ethic of ‘I am willing to burn the house down so I can own the lot’,” explains Mike Casey, a veteran Democratic communications consultant based out of Virginia. “Stephen Harper is willing to burn the house down to own the lot. ‘I will bring a gun to a knife fight. You can call foul while you’re lying bleeding on the floor' — that is the kind of ethic.”
“The American political left took a long time, thirty-plus years, to learn this about the American right,” Casey continues. “They lost election after election after election. Throughout my career, I watched Democratic or progressive politicians get their heads handed to them by conservative politicians and they cried foul over dirty tactics after the election was done. It just doesn’t change anything. I call it principled loserism.”
How Harper's winning machine was built
Harper’s first experience at trying to win a federal election as leader of the newly-constituted Conservative Party took place in the winter of 2004. By then, Harper had recruited his former mentor, University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, to be his campaign manager and oversee assembling an election machine.
Flanagan says there were certain benefits of creating a new party from scratch. As he recalls: “There was a rare opportunity to rebuild and borrow best practices we saw elsewhere.”
Two initial hindrances soon became advantages: the fact they were not attracting enough corporate donors, and couldn’t access membership lists of provincial counterparts.
This forced the Tories to build a direct-mail fundraising operation from the ground up, which soon gave them a financial advantage over their rivals, especially after Chrétien changed the fundraising laws as he was leaving office in 2003 that banned corporate donations.
“[The Liberals] didn’t have a good grassroots fundraising system of their own,” explains Flanagan. “I don’t know what they thought they were doing, it’s a really strange piece of history. But the new Conservative Party was better poised to take advantage of the new fundraising laws. So we developed all these tools of direct mail and telephone solicitation and we managed to integrate them… into almost a perpetual motion machine.
"And it worked by doing the large-scale voter identification during campaigns, building up lists of millions of sympathizers and supporters and then going back to them later and asking them for money... That’s what has been bringing in the money ever since.”
During the 2004 election, the Tories made missteps, including eschewing negative ads, and making the incendiary allegation that Paul Martin Jr. supported child pornography late in the race that cost them dearly. They also struggled with marketing Harper and faded in the backstretch, although picked up 99 seats and knocked the Liberals down to minority status.
In the aftermath of that election, the foundations of today’s Conservative machine solidified. The Tory brain trust knew elections were decided by a tiny minority of voters – all of 500,000 from a pool of 23 million eligible voters. While the Conservatives' base was anywhere from 25 to 30 per cent, to get over the top, they needed to woo only another 10 per cent.
“As far back as Reform [Party] days, there was a general understanding that it was very unlikely that a conservative party was going to win the old-fashioned way, which was getting above forty odd percent of the popular vote,” says Jim Armour, a former Harper staffer and Ottawa-based communications executive.
“For (us) to win, our vote was going to have to be more efficient and more targeted. That was the general philosophy and it became more and more true and the tactics became more and more honed… as we went along.”
"Slice and dice" politics: Zoes, Steves and Eunices
But who were those key swing voters? One person who had a notion was Patrick Muttart, who became one of Harper’s top political advisers after 2004. Muttart had risen through the ranks of the PC and Reform parties before becoming a public relations manager of a hotel chain and working for Jaime Watt, a former Mike Harris political adviser in Toronto.
“I think [Muttart] really helped us clarify our approach to communications – to targeting who we wanted to reach and what sort of messages would work,” says Flanagan. “He was a fulcrum for a more sophisticated approach that paid off in the 2006 campaign.”
For one thing, Muttart had developed a rich knowledge of how conservative parties worldwide were winning elections, in particular in Australia. He was intrigued by the success of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative who ended 13 years of Labour rule in 1996 before going on to win three consecutive elections. Howard adopted a market segmentation approach to appeal to “the battlers” – hard-working families struggling to raise their kids on small incomes. Focusing on this group had helped Howard win and Muttart was determined to find equivalent groups for Canada’s Conservatives.
“Close campaigns are decided by the least informed, least engaged voters,” Muttart once told Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a New Zealand-based political scientist. “These voters do not go looking for political news and information. This necessitates brutally simple communication with clear choices that hits the voter, whether they like it or not.”
One of Muttart’s messages to Harper was to not waste time and money on voters who would never vote Conservative. This was a break from the past when Tories and Liberals conducted mass marketing campaigns to appeal to median voters. Now, the Tories were looking at segment marketing – with the idea of turning a coalition of subsegments of the electorate into a governing force.
This approach is known as “hypersegmentation”, whereby the party’s polling would identify voter’s demands and then allow the Conservatives to design ads to appeal specifically to them, helped by focus groups. Flanagan has called it “slice and dice politics.”
Indeed, Muttart broke the electorate down into types and gave them names: such as the “Zoes” — young, single, female, progressive downtown apartment-dwellers who would never vote Tory and therefore should be ignored. On the other hand, there were the “Steves and Heathers” – married, Protestant, small business owners with children in their 40s living in the suburbs; or the “Eunices” – widows in their seventies living on a modest pension – all of whom could be persuaded to vote Conservative if ads and policies were designed for them.
Kinsella says the Conservative’s financial advantage means they can do better research on who their potential voters are. And their direct-mail apparatus connects them directly to those voters.
“What the Conservatives have been able to do for a decade now is high quality research – the kind of research that only previously Coca-Cola and Procter and Gamble could afford,” he says.
“But the Harper guys, led by Muttart… would do psychographic research, geo-demographic research so they wouldn’t just know what party you and your family voted for historically, they knew what route you took to work, they knew what toothpaste you used, what TV shows you watch between 7:00 and 7:30. They had an intense amount of data, detailed stuff, that assisted them not only on doing broad-based campaigns but very narrow-casted campaigns where they could do drop pieces, mail pieces or emails to you that are very specific to issues that you are concerned about but your neighbor might not be … It’s part of the reason that Harper won – he knew better what people were thinking than his opponents did.”
In the end, all of this research told the Conservatives to focus on seniors, working-class suburbanites (especially in the voter-rich suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver), and families. The Conservatives developed policies to pander to these segments too: Families were extended tax credits; seniors offered income splitting; or the Jewish community received full-hearted support for Israel.
Another effective strategy was championed by Jason Kenney, who would later be Harper’s immigration minister (and current defence minister) – tapping into the rich pool of voters among new immigrants. These voters had traditionally voted Liberal, but Kenney saw that many of them were social conservatives and felt the Tories had ignored them for too long.
“They stole that constituency [from the Liberals],” says Kinsella. Indeed, between 2007 and 2013, financial contributions from the Canadian Chinese community to the Tories almost doubled.
The Tories still had the problem of Harper’s personality: He was not an easy guy to sell. “We did all sorts of focus groups after the 2004 election [on Harper],” recalls Armour, “and I remember going into a room where Tom Flanagan was going through all of the topline results and a report back from the pollsters and him turning to me and saying ‘My God Jim, it’s worse than we thought — they see him exactly as he is’.”
There were attempts to humanize Harper by having him wear sweaters, or photo ops of him throwing a football on the front lawn of Parliament Hill. In the end, says Flanagan: “Ultimately, the main thing has been to portray him as a competent and reliable leader. Someone you don’t necessarily have to feel warm about but someone who will get the job done and deliver results…You’re not going to turn him into pretty boy Justin Trudeau… You showcase what you have.”
One reason Harper lost in 2004 was that the Liberals used attack ads effectively characterizing him as a mean-spirited Republican disguised as a Canadian. Harper had decided against attack ads during that election. “That was a mistake,” says Gerry Nicholls, a Toronto-based political consultant and former Harper colleague. “He learned a lesson from that election and got tougher and did more effective work in terms of defining his opponents in his advertising campaigns.”
Flanagan also taught Harper the importance of using the “politics of fear” — that running campaigns on hope doesn’t work. Flanagan has said fear is the most “powerful political emotion” in elections. So it’s no accident Harper has suggested terrorists may be lurking anywhere in Canada; he’s fuelled fears of Muslims by declaring that some of them practice ways “contrary to our own values”; and he’s sparked fears about murderers roaming free on our streets.
Another early political lesson Harper took to heart occurred just after he became leader of the Conservative Party in 2004. The Liberals launched attack ads headlined “Stephen Harper Said,” which displayed quotes from his past suggesting he was far more reactionary than the moderate he was trying to portray himself as.
This attempt to define your opponent before you’ve had the chance to define yourself was borrowed by Harper and has been skillfully wielded ever since. Thus, every time the Liberals anoint a new leader the Tory attack machine swings swiftly into gear to define them: Stéphane Dion as a hapless bungler; Michael Ignatieff as a opportunistic visitor who had spent 34 years outside Canada and had no economic policies; and Trudeau as a pretty boy rich kid too immature to ever be considered prime minister material.
“I can recall the Ignatieff team shortly after he became leader suggesting that Ignatieff would not be vulnerable to negative advertising,” relates Reid. “I think the exact phrase was there was a ‘New Paradigm’ – that a leader of his kind would not be vulnerable to negative advertising. What insane hubris, what insane hubris! Now, you look back and all of the people around him are saying that he was a victim of the paid negative campaigning of the Conservatives. But that was all predictable.”
New Zealand political scientist Jennifer Lees-Marshment, who’s studied the marketing methods of the Harper Conservatives, says their attack ads are “incredibly strategic and very clever” because “they’ve tried to undermine Justin Trudeau’s brand… They are trying to brand him as someone who would never be able to lead Canada. So they were attacking his governing abilities. They have played on people’s fears.”
Fraud, vote suppression and vote buying
When federal NDP senior campaign adviser Brad Lavigne is asked what keeps him up nights strategizing against the Tories, he responds: “In the last three elections that they’ve won, their team has been charged with cheating. What safeguards going into the 2015 campaign makes this less likely? There is none…What keeps me up at night is their track record at breaking the rules in order to win.”
While it’s unclear employing illegal methods to win elections is tipping the balance in their favour, the Conservatives do have a long history of dirty-tricks and unethical behavior.
During the 2006 election, in what later became the “in and out scandal,” the Tories got around spending limits by transferring money between the party and its riding offices. Having reached their $18.3-million spending limit, the Conservatives transferred $1.3-million to 67 ridings, which then funneled it back to the national party to spend on advertising.
In 2011, four members of the party (including two senators) were charged for their involvement in this laundering scheme — and the party forced to repay $230,198. Nigel Wright, Harper’s former chief of staff, was listed among those involved.
In 2008, Dean Del Mastro, an Ontario Tory MP and Harper’s former parliamentary secretary, engaged in election fraud when he deliberately broke spending limits by funneling $21,000 of his own money to his campaign, and then falsified documents to hide the donation. Two weeks ago, Del Mastro was sentenced to a month in prison and four months of house arrest and barred from running for office for five years.
Ironically, Del Mastro had been picked by Harper to be his spokesperson on election fraud issues.
In 2011, just prior to election day, some voters received recorded calls that told them to go to the wrong polling station. The targeted voters didn't support the Conservatives. These robocalls were linked to a political consulting firm the Conservatives hired. Michael Sona, a low-level Conservative party staffer, was sentenced last year to nine months in prison for his role. Two judges found that it was likely other senior Tories were involved.
During this same election, at least 14 Tory MPs employed Front Porch Strategies, an American election firm based out of Ohio that works for the Republican Party. Front Porch sent their American staff to Canada to work on the ground – which is in contravention of Canada's election laws. The Tories then tried to cover up the fact they employed Front Porch.
In response to these scandals, the Harper government overhauled Canada’s election laws last year with the Fair Elections Act. This act makes it easier for the Tories to commit election fraud because it weakened the power of Elections Canada, effectively muzzling the chief electoral officer from communicating with the public and MPs about investigations, and cut off the agency’s investigations arm.
The law may also help the Tories engage in voter suppression. The Council of Canadians and the Canadian Federation of Students launched a case at the Ontario Superior Court to set aside key parts of the new voting rules on the grounds that they will make it very difficult for many students, First Nations, the homeless, as well as disabled and elderly people to establish proof of residency so they can vote. This could tip the balance in many ridings.
The Conservatives are also engaging in old-fashioned vote buying. For example, they recently forewent a competition and began talks to order a naval supply ship to be built at the Davie Shipyard near Quebec City, based in Conservative Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney’s riding. Davie was passed over for big-ticket federal government shipbuilding contracts in 2011 because it was financially ailing. It recently laid off 200 workers.
Last week, the Globe and Mail ran a story saying a federal infrastructure fund aimed at fixing up arenas and community centres was being spent disproportionately in ridings represented by Conservative MPs, as the Tories prepare to roll out a nearly identical fund in the months before the fall election. Ridings that elected Tories in 2011 received, on average, 48 per cent more money from the $150-million Community Infrastructure Improvement Fund than ridings that elected opposition MPs, the Globe found. Some of the best-funded ridings are held by cabinet ministers, including Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel, associate minister of Defence Julian Fantino and Health Minister Rona Ambrose.
Finally, the Tories are using taxpayers’ money to run thinly-veiled election ads dressed up as government ads. The Toronto Star estimates that $500-million has been spent by the Harper government since 2009 promoting its own programs – $75-million in 2014 alone.
Path to power...again?
As the October 19 election draws near, it’s clear Harper is sticking to the same formula that worked in the past. He will be promising tax cuts, portraying himself as a good economic manager, while pushing the fear buttons – all aimed at appealing to enough Canadians to get him re-elected. “He has been disciplined and dedicated to this model,” says Scott Reid. “So even when it’s been a year out from the election campaign and things are looking tough, and you have enormous turbulence worldwide with a financial crisis, he’s been very focused and very devoted to this model… [while] his opponents have made big errors.”
While many Canadians might be puzzled why Harper seems intent on alienating so many voters, there’s a method to his madness: he knows who supports him and who does not.
“They are unusual in Canadian political history… in that they are dismissive of those who are not part of their base, or their potential coalition,” observes Reid. “So if you belong to that cohort of voters that would never vote Conservative, they couldn’t give a shit what you think.
"This government will be flagrantly indifferent to those who will not vote for them. They will punish those voters, they will redistribute budgets, they don’t care, they don’t care and they’re willing to take the criticism. Most politicians love the love. Stephen Harper is a weird guy; he’s not addicted to affection from voters. He’s therefore willing to be more utilitarian than most politicians because most politicians are far more sensitive to criticism.”