In this first installment of McMillan Vantage’s regular spotlight on the federal election, Vantage consultants Marisa Maslink and Blair Ostrom answer some questions on what’s what, and what’s to come:
Why an election now?
The simple answer is that the Liberals think they can win back a majority government. The Liberal focus will be particularly on ridings in B.C. and Quebec which saw some opposition MPs elected in 2019 with narrow leads, some in three-way races. The Liberals will also put up a strong ground game in ridings in Calgary and Edmonton that they gained in 2015 but lost in 2019, capitalizing on weak Conservative numbers in urban Alberta.
The risk for the Liberals? According to a recent Mainstreet Poll, a significant majority of Canadians (65%) don’t agree that this a good time for a federal election. This issue alone may give the opposition parties and especially the Conservatives the opening they need. Many Canadians are trying to enjoy what they can of summer, after a grueling 17 months of COVID. And of course Canada has not yet fully recovered from the pandemic, so the threat of a fourth wave is front of mind for many people.
Challenges for incumbent governments
People don’t vote governments in, they vote them out. The 2015 federal election that saw Stephen Harper ousted after a decade as prime minister, the 2018 Ontario election that ended 15 years of Liberal rule, and the 2020 US Presidential election that saw Donald Trump lose to Joe Biden – all recent examples of rejecting incumbents.
Elections are not just about a party or leader’s vision for the future, they are a referendum on the current government. That’s the core challenge the Liberals will face – convincing Canadians they deserve a third term to guide the country through the challenging times ahead.
What we’re expecting from this election
COVID-19 is dropping down the priority list and many Canadians will look at this campaign as a way to start envisioning a post-COVID Canada. Canadians believe that the Liberal government performed well during the pandemic, but many eyes are looking beyond the last year and a half and to issues like the economy and fiscal management, which may buoy the Conservative campaign.
One challenge for all parties: does the pandemic, and the fact that much of the campaign will be fought in summer, translate to lower turnout? Greater opportunities to vote through mail-in balloting and other early voting procedures, highlighted by organized local campaigns, helped to drive turnout in recent pandemic elections in the B.C. and in Newfoundland and Labrador. We will see if these kinds of efforts can have a similar result nationally.
Why local campaigns matter
Every political operative knows the phrase ‘all politics is local’. Although in most cases, national campaigns influence local outcomes, riding-level operations play a critical role for two reasons: tailoring the central message to local issues for greater and amplified relevance, and tactically executing a ground game to identify the supportive voters and mobilize those supporters to vote. A strong local candidate can boost results by 3-5 percent and this can make the difference. Maximum candidate exposure to the voters, with a strong local ground game, is important for delivering on Election Day.
How COVID has changed campaigns
Less travel, more zoom. COVID-19 has changed everything about campaigns – from war rooms, to election fundraising, leader tours and even how voters are contacted. Local campaigns, like local businesses, have been forced to pivot and adapt to local public health restrictions and measures.
In Ontario, for example, candidates and campaigns were only able to begin door-knocking in June after the provincial stay-at-home order was lifted. Incumbents and candidates nominated well in advance of the election focused their voter identification efforts on online data acquisition through tools such as social media and over-the-phone voter identification, versus traditional door-knocking. The agility to adapt with limited resources, including funding and staffing, will make all the difference this time around.
Marisa Maslink is a former Conservative Party election readiness and war room operative with a love for local campaigns. She has worked on campaigns across the country and at all levels of government. She has also served in senior positions in the Ontario PC Party, including serving on the Party executive in lead up to the successful 2018 election.
Blair Ostrom is a former Liberal staffer and experienced campaign manager, with nearly a decade of experience working on federal and provincial elections, leadership races and nomination battles in the GTA and Eastern Ontario.