One critical weakness of the Conservatives’ election strategy is that they campaign only during campaign periods.
Soon after Prime Minister Harper dropped the writ in 2015, I received a call from the campaign office of his party. The caller, after verifying that he was indeed talking to me, rattled off his script – in bored monotone – as to why it was crucial for the future of Canada that Mr. Harper be re-elected. I told him politely that I do not give money to political parties, as a matter of policy. He then rattled off another script, with equal detachment if not disinterest. Most of the points overlapped with the first script. I repeated my reply, and asked him to ensure that my name was taken off their list of people to call for money. He must have done that, because I didn’t receive another call from CPC campaign.
I had been in regular touch with my MP, who was from CPC, for since he got elected in 2011. Initially, this was by way of responding to his mailers asking for feedback, and later, in person at his community events such as barbecues. My feedback was often negative and critical of Mr. Harper’s government. Especially on foreign policy, I told my MP that the government was on a very wrong track. He asked me to set up a phone meeting, one-on-one, so I could air my objections in detail. On the appointed day and hour, he called me from Ottawa, and we spent over 20 minutes on the matter. The discussion was, of course, inconclusive, but I was happy that he was willing to give time for a constituent’s concern.
By the time I attended his Canada Day barbecue in 2015, it was apparent to me that Mr. Harper would drop the writ early, possibly by mid-August. I was curious to know how the political process of elections worked at the grassroots, so I decided to become involved in the process to find out. Towards this, I offered to him that I could get him some coverage in South Asian media. I had good relationships with several publishers of weekly ‘newspapers’ in five languages in the South Asian community of the GTA, and told him that before the writ was dropped and the restrictions on affording space to candidates kicked in, I could get him interviewed by these media outlets. I thought this was a good way to gain a head-start on his opponents. He asked me to coordinate with his staff for this.
When I met his staff to work out the details, however, they told me that they had been arranging coverage for my MP in all the South Asian publications ever since he got elected. I was surprised. I read five different scripts (including English), and had a habit of picking up a copy of each publication every Friday. Of course, reading all the dozen or so publications would put too much demand on my time, so I used to scan through the headlines to see if there was any story or article of my interest. In all the years since his election, I had come across only one piece in which my MP had been covered – and it portrayed him negatively. It wasn’t a South Asian publication, but rather the ‘mainstream’ community newspaper called Brampton Guardian. At the time, the introduction of a new sex-ed curriculum by the provincial government of Ontario had kicked up much furor. Opposition to the new curriculum was especially strong among the immigrant population of Brampton. This had, possibly, prompted my MP to issue a statement about the policy. The piece in Brampton Guardian criticized the federal MP for wading into provincial matters.
Other than that piece, I had never seen my MP being mentioned in the local South Asian publications ever. Even if one argues that I may have missed a story featuring him, it seems highly unlikely that his name would have appeared in these media with the kind of frequency that his staff claimed. However, since they indicated clearly that they did not need any help from me on this front, there was nothing I could do. My efforts to learn about the workings of the political machinery would have to wait for another opportunity.
This opportunity came once the MP had his own campaign office set up. Between the options of working the phones and going door-knocking, I chose the latter, and managed to wiggle myself into the group that was led by the MP himself. This afforded me the chance to talk to him about how he was going to conduct his campaign.
Unlike my earlier interactions with him, this task allowed us to be more informal with each other. I found him to be a down to earth and easy-going person. He had represented Canada in two Olympics as a member of the swimming team, and later became a lawyer, but he did not have any airs about him. I thought that perhaps his unsuccessful attempt to win the riding in the earlier election in 2008 may have been a factor.
On election night in October 2015, as the results rolled in, I saw that he had lost the election, securing only 35% of the vote as against 52% of his Liberal rival. In the election of 2011, he had received nearly 45% of the vote, against 35% of his Liberal opponent. In absolute numbers, my MP had lost 12,391 votes, while the Liberals gained only 1,553 votes (this may seem like an anomaly, but is explained by the fact that the riding was split into two after the 2011 election; as a result 17,950 fewer votes were cast in the riding in 2015 compared to 2011).
BILLY KONCHELLAH’S LESSON
Of all my experiences in Kenya, one of the most impressive was being relatively close to wave after wave of world champions in middle- and long-distance running. One of these champions was Billy Konchellah. One of the most famous races that he was in happened at the 1993 World Championships in Athletics in Stuttgart, Germany.
As the reigning champion in the event, Konchellah was expected to win gold at this meet. There were three Kenyans in the finals (Konchellah, Paul Ruto and William Tanui), and the team’s strategy consisted of using Paul Ruto as a pacesetter in the initial stages of the race. After tiring out the other athletes as they tried to keep pace with him, and getting exhausted himself in the process, he was supposed to fade away or drop out of the race altogether. In the final stretch, Konchellah was supposed to produce his famous kick to leave everyone behind and win gold.
Of course, the other competitors were aware of the strategy, and didn’t expend themselves completely in pursuit of Ruto. Konchellah, meanwhile, hung around in the dead last position in the field. But he timed his finishing kick too late. Meanwhile, Paul Ruto, to everyone’s surprise, just kept going, seemingly having found previously unknown reserves of energy. He won gold, having been ahead of everyone for the entirety of the race – an exceptionally rare phenomenon. Konchellah’s belated burst was insufficient for him to catch up to Ruto and Giuseppe D’Urso of Italy, and he ended up coming third.
I was watching this race live in Nairobi. The commentator Steve Ovett – himself a former Olympics champion in this event – described Konchellah as ‘arriving at the finish line like an express train’. Over the next few days, the talk in Nairobi was about Konchellah’s miscalculation in timing his burst by about one second (the difference between him and Ruto was 0.18 seconds). People who knew a lot about athletics told me that one second was a long time in this event at the finishing stage.
In 1996, Nike came out with an advertisement with a caption that the creative team must have thought was brilliantly funny, but it created a strong backlash. The caption was: ‘You don’t’ win silver, you lose gold’. This was considered – and rightly so – as being insulting to all the hard work, commitment, hope and emotion that athletes invest in their sport. Nike was forced to apologize and withdraw the advertisement, but in the age of the internet, these things don’t die (and can even be resurrected if they happened earlier); you can see this advertisement at this link on YouTube.
One crucial difference between the world of sports and that of elections is that in the former, there are three spots on the podium, whereas in the latter, there is only one spot. There are no silver and bronze medals. A party either wins enough seats to form a government, or it doesn’t.
As I have mentioned in earlier articles, Conservatives also suffer from an ‘image deficit’. This diminishes, considerably, their ability to produce a ‘kick’ in the final stretch of the race. As I also noted previously, this is precisely the time when they are especially vulnerable to external forces ranging from ‘bozo eruptions’ among their own candidates to outright malicious propaganda by their opponents. The ‘drag effect’ of these factors reduces the energy available for the ‘kick’.
The only way that I can see for them to surmount their ‘image deficit’ is by getting rid of their habit of campaigning only during campaign periods. They need to be running like Paul Ruto did: establish an early lead in reaching out to voters, convince them that positive changes are possible under a Conservative government – and then keep running with the same energy till the end of the race.
In a nutshell, campaigning isn’t about elections. It is about getting voters onside and getting them to agree with the Party’s vision for the future of Canada. The best time to do it is when an election isn’t on, because then, the atmosphere is less charged and people are more receptive.