Grappling with how to press the virtual flesh, parties gear up for election showdown


- Advertisement -

The three main national parties are firing up their election engines, even as they insist they want to steer clear of a campaign.

Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats are on the move in advance of a potential federal election this year, recruiting candidates, training volunteers and grappling with how to kiss babies and press the flesh in a virtual, pandemic-restricted world.

The uncertainty of COVID-19 has left each party ravenously raising funds and wooing would-be nominees while suspended in a kind of limbo, forced to map out multiple scenarios for an election whose timing under a minority Liberal government remains unknown.

The Conservatives are first out of the gate on several tracks, including fundraising, nominations and digital prep.

The party says it raised a record $8.5 million in the first three months of the year — a windfall more than twice the size of any other party’s last quarter — and nominated 197 candidates so far, including incumbents. It also set up what communications director Cory Hann calls a “state-of-the-art broadcast studio” in a ballroom at the Westin hotel in downtown Ottawa equipped with stage lights, multiple cameras and a massive background screen.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole during an event in Ottawa last month. The party says it raised a record $8.5 million in the first three months of the year — a windfall more than twice the size of any other party’s last quarter. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“It allows us to beam the leader across the country, whether it be through a Zoom meeting or a live stream or press conferences,” Hann said.

The Tory election budget of $30 million also means Erin O’Toole, the party’s leader, could spend indulgently to criss-cross the country preaching his message, one church basement at a time, should public health measures allow it.

Online outreach growing in importance

For the New Democrats, ground zero is a basement.

Jennifer Howard, campaign director and chief of staff to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, spends her days in the depths of her south Ottawa home among “my many chargers and my earbuds and about three baskets of laundry to fold.”

Like other parties, the NDP is planning a heavier focus on online campaigning and social media advertising, which can micro-target voters by age and location to provide more bang for the buck.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh adjusts his webcam before announcing a campaign to reach out to young people and young families at a news conference in Montreal in March. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Party brass have met with strategists who helped run U.S. President Joe Biden’s field operations last year, as well as organizers from British Columbia to New Zealand to soak up lessons from elections fought in the grips of COVID-19.

Morale remains a concern on all sides. Howard said she hopes her party can grow camaraderie among the grassroots without the hothouse of bricks-and-mortar headquarters or late-night beers and bull sessions.

“You do it because you believe in something, but there’s also a great social element to it,” she said of pre-COVID campaigning.

“Somebody brings in doughnuts at the end of a hard night, and you sit back and talk about politics. And when we’re all in our homes doing our work, you lose that.”

To stoke team spirit, the NDP created what Howard calls a “virtual campaign office.” Launched last month, the private Team Jagmeet Facebook group posts how-to guides on digital promotion and upbeat messages from online organizers to spread the orange gospel.

The party also aims to capitalize on Singh’s social media savvy, which can offer a casual tone and light-on-politics message piped out via Instagram and TikTok. Recent posts show the 42-year-old politician dancing to hip-hop beats in a Montreal square and tying his hair in a Sikh warrior knot, part of an effort to establish an emotional connection with digital natives.

“It might not be possible to do door-to-door campaigning in some parts of the country, which has been a lot of the kind of bread and butter of NDP-style grounds campaigns,” NDP national director Anne McGrath said, noting leaders’ social media game could be all the more critical.

Nominations picking up

The NDP has nominated 65 candidates, with 33 more nomination dates scheduled before the end of June. The party snagged a $22 million loan to anchor an election budget of $24 million, said officials, who hope to make gains after shedding seats in 2019 and 2015.

The Greens have named five candidates, including all three MPs and Leader Annamie Paul, who remains without a seat in the House of Commons. The party said it has received more than 200 applications, with some 20 likely candidates vetted so far.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, in Ottawa last December, remains without a seat in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Liberals have nominated 152 candidates — 129 are incumbents — as of this week. Four incumbents have said they won’t seek re-election so far, including organizing heavyweight and former cabinet minister Navdeep Bains, the Grits’ campaign co-chair.

The Liberals hope to build on their relative popularity, despite an initially shaky COVID-19 vaccine rollout and a widening fundraising gap with the Tories, with support particularly strong in vote-rich Ontario, according to recent polls.

A national convention last month marked the largest policy gathering in the party’s history, with more than 4,000 faithful in virtual attendance. More than half were first-time attendees, “and that energy has carried strongly into their new involvement as active volunteers,” said party spokesperson Braeden Caley.

Political telemarketing has also made a comeback, with millions more Canadians at home during the day.

The Liberals’ “virtual weekends of action” — the 12th since last spring took place on Saturday — deploy Grit volunteers to phone residents in more than 200 communities. During the calls, canvassers chat up seniors, pitch neighbours and request feedback on policy or involvement in the looming campaign.

Back in her basement, the NDP’s Howard looked past her screens and cords to the tulips and daffodils sprouting in her backyard.

The campaign gizmos may have advanced, she said, but the perennials of politics — connecting with voters, hearing their concerns, revving up the base — remain the same.

How Canadians respond to those entreaties, both newfangled and old-fashioned, will play out at a date yet unknown.

With files from Stephanie Taylor and Joan Bryden 2021-05-09 17:23:00

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.


This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More