Ford Nation and the Demise of the Campaign Playbook

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford gives a brief speech as he unveils his campaign bus and slogan in Toronto on April 15, 2018. IPOLITICS/Marieke Walsh

Earlier this week Scott Reid, formerly Paul Martin’s Communications Director and currently a political analyst and speechwriter who “was pitching in” for Kathleen Wynne’s team, wrote one of the more sobering post-mortems on the Ontario campaign. The piece, published in the Globe and Mail, posed the question as to whether campaigns even matter anymore: “In an era of cable-cord cutters, low-information voters and siloed communities of online confirmation bias, how could we imagine that getting in tomorrow’s newspaper, or running a picturesque leaders’ tour are worth a sweet damn? At a time when big data disciplines organizations and institutions to feed people’s own opinions back to them, how – or why – would you even go about changing someone’s perspective?”

To all of what Reid points to as significant challenges to win hearts and minds, I would add another set of data to complement – and darken – the overall picture: just 43 per cent of Canadians say they trust their government — down from 53 per cent just one year before. For the first time in 17 years, Canada is now among the “distruster” countries in the world, in which more than half of citizens say they distrust their civic institutions. These observations are critical in light of all the other factors Reid mentioned because with distrust comes cynicism. You can’t persuade someone, even with the soundest, evidence-based policy, if your credibility has eroded so precipitously among undecided voters.

There are parallel media ecosystems now – one conservative and one progressive – and the old contention that a mainstream media exists and transcends any partisan perspective has been discredited in the public arena as rapidly as the newspaper business’ advertising revenues.

The Ford campaign team clearly adapted better to this new reality. They threw out the old campaign playbook, with the conventional emphasis on winning over the mainstream media. The campaign bus has always been the locus of that old charm offensive; by presenting a team of flacks who can deliver a schedule of daily events down to the minute while playing nice and providing all the scrum time the media desires with the leader, the belief was that you could control the narrative and dominate the news cycle. Ford’s team claimed that the bus was a thing of the past, saying “most media outlets have shifted to covering events from their office and relying on live feeds.” They promised that they would stream every event on their leader’s tour of the province, while artfully glossing over that this approach, effectively done, reduced the media to stenographers of Ford Nation’s press releases.

In past campaigns, the media bus charm offensive was just the public face of a standardized set of tactics. It was complemented with a tried and true ratio of bought to earned media and a war room skilled in the black arts of scouring all the social media posts and buried scandals of the other parties’ candidates. With perhaps some tinkering on the bought to earned ratio of media coverage, adjusted to reflect new advertising rules on Facebook, Wynne’s Liberals didn’t seem to deviate from this approach. They issued their daily press releases, had Wynne pose for the right photo op, all the while unearthing their share of Ford Nation micro-scandals. There is no better testament to the obsolescence of this approach than the election result.

The challenge that campaign teams now have, with the rapidly disappearing notion of a shared public space for non-partisan dialogue, is this whole playbook has to be reconceived now. Campaign “war rooms” such as Wynne’s are still strategizing for a battlefield that has become a mirage. Trudeau’s team, peopled with many Queen’s Park veterans, are assuredly taking note, while Scheer’s team has a whole new “shadow” team of campaign advisors, poised for round two of a Conservative comeback.

A former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau, John Delacourt is Vice President of Ensight.