Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Think Globally, Screw Up Locally

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning (Wednesday March 7, 2007 at 7:22 pm)

By and large, the Conservative Party of Canada has been schooling the Liberals in political strategy for some months now. This, therefore, seems to be something of a miscue. But following closely as it does on this, we have what begins to look like a serious systemic failure.

Central campaigns may be the focus of contemporary electoral politics; but that doesn’t mean that local campaigns aren’t worth thinking carefully about. In 1999, relative unknown Leona Dombrowsky won a 2,000-vote victory for the Ontario Liberal Party in a new riding whose two predecessors had both been staunchly Conservative. In doing so, she outpaced the party’s own 8% growth in support, increasing Liberal votes in the new riding by 6,000 over the combined total of its predecessors, or more than 40%. The central campaign had written the riding off — her dedication and unique campaign (which emphasised her as representative) took it on and took it.

It’s a rare case, true; but it’s a rare case which unfolded because the conditions were right. The party didn’t try to force her to use their “standard” signs and didn’t pressure the campaign to emphasise the leader. The party’s lack of interest in the riding meant that the riding was free to do what was needed locally to win.

These two new stories suggest that the Conservatives aren’t paying the right kind of attention to local campaigns.

In New Brunswick, controversy has erupted over the lack (thus far) of a nominated candidate for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe:

The Moncton constituency has been a Liberal stronghold and some riding-association members argue that it is difficult to retain a good candidate for a long period of time if no election is imminent. They want to wait until an election is called.

Most of the people who spoke to The Globe after the meeting with Mr. Finley say he was not sympathetic to that request.

Locals usually have a fairly keen notion about the availability of strong local candidates, and the “gruff” and “disrespectful” tone taken at the meeting betrays a kind of indifference to local custom and feelings. That’s a mistake.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the successful nomination of Ed Holder as the Conservative torchbearer in London West. The problem? His victory came at the expense of Albert Gretzky, whose impressive name came within 1,400 votes of taking the riding in 2004, while the surrounding London ridings went Liberal and NDP. Holder may have won the nomination battle, but it’s far from clear that he’ll be able to best Gretzky’s combination of name recognition and campaign experience on the trail.

The choice of Holder smacks of a hands-off approach to riding battles which may preserve local autonomy; but only in an illusory sense. Victory in such meetings has far more to do with paying for members than the ability to connect with local voters. It doesn’t do much to secure an electoral victory.

Indifference, as might be expected, creates problems at both extremes: too much involvement and too little. Which is why indifference isn’t the smart choice when it comes to local-central relationships. The smart choice is a mutual respect which places each on an equal footing, recognizes each one’s strengths, and defers to those strengths wherever possible.

After all, party leaders aren’t just leaders of central campaigns — they must lead the constituencies, too.

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