Identifying supporters is only part of the challenge in a political campaign. That’s basically what the five candidates in the Liberal leadership contest are doing when they sign people up to vote in November. It’s a lot tougher a job than some people apparently thought.
One of the big factors in any political campaign is the candidate’s stump speech. The name comes from the days when a candidate would go from town to town and stand on the nearest raised platform – including a tree stump – to tell whatever crowd gathered why they should vote for him.
These days you might call it the vote proposition or the strategic message. The simpler the statement the better. People remember short, clear ideas like Nike’s “Just do it” or Coke’s “It’s the real thing.” Former Conservative cabinet minister Shawn Skinner used a variation on that second term when he labelled leadership candidate Cathy Bennett’s message – choose change – “strategic” during a recent discussion with the On Point political panel.
What Bennett’s campaign really shows is something else.
If you look at first debate, you can see the stump speech or vote proposition for the three leading candidates. Bennett repeated the word change, as in Cathy Bennett represents a change for the party. Dwight Ball pointed to the most recent MQO poll and said – basically – “I brought you this far and I can take you the rest of the way.” Paul Antle talked about a number of things but essentially positioned himself as the Liberal alternative to incumbent Dwight Ball.
Just flip back for a second to the moment when Cathy Bennett launched her campaign. At that point, she was the alternative to Dwight Ball. The “choose change” message was simple. It put her in contrast to Dwight Ball. Even her first formal encounter with news media - at her campaign launch - presented a hard edged candidate whose aggressive style was a radical contrast to Dwight Ball’s more measured approach.
That stark choice could well have worked. You are supposed to present clear alternatives to voters. That’s what Cathy Bennett offered and her presence in the campaign is why SRBP said even before she formally announced that Bennett changed the water in the Liberal’s political beans. The “change” message certainly was such a strong strategic message that any of the experienced campaigners on her team would naturally settle on it.
Then along came Paul Antle, right out of nowhere. Suddenly, the “choose change” message wasn’t a simple choice between Cathy or Dwight. Now voters could change from Dwight and two alternatives.
This is where Skinner’s appraisal collapses. Bennett’s message was strategically smart when she started. But after Antle entered the race, Cathy Bennett had a huge strategic problem. She wasn’t the clear alternative to Dwight Ball, any more.
Paul Antle can produce a neat little video that traces his extensive Liberal pedigree - first line: ‘I’ve been a proud member of the Liberal Party for 20 plus years” – that includes another line that points out that he stuck with the party even in the tough times.
The implicit contrast with Cathy Bennett is devastating. You don’t even need to be a traditional Liberal supporter to see the stark difference between a guy who backed the Liberals when few others did and someone who seems to have a chronic problem explaining is now running to lead the Liberal party when she spent the past decade backing the Tories.
What’s interesting about the past eight weeks or so of the Liberal leadership campaign is how Bennett and her team haven’t shifted her strategic message even though the strategic map has changed. What she’s doing is basically like starting out with a plan for a desert battle in the sand. Instead, she finds herself in a tee shirt and shorts in the middle of a snowstorm in the high Arctic desert. Rather than pull on a parka, snowshoes, and mitts, she keeps walking as if nothing changed. – adapt to the new strategic environment – she just keeps pulling the pith helmet down as the wind blows harder.
By contrast, Ball can point to both the CRA poll and the more recent – and generally more accurate - MQO polls that shows the Liberals have supplanted the NDP as the top political party while he has been leader. The most recent numbers suggest the New Democrats have stalled and the Tories continue to slide. That just reinforces Ball’s message: he’s gotten them to the top of the polls. He can finish the job and win the next election.
The best the Bennett camp has been able to do is have Siobhan Coady tell the On Point audience two things. First, we need to watch out for the CRA numbers, as if they have been as reliable a track of local opinion as MQO appears to have been lately. Second, according to Coady these great polls are just happening naturally.
Meanwhile, every time Cathy Bennett tells people to choose change, she is implicitly telling them to take a look at the field. They will naturally pay attention to Paul Antle. If you want to see how effective Antle was, just notice that On Point’s New Democrat panellist Lana Payne – another big Muskrat Falls supporter – slag Antle for sharply challenging pro-Muskrat Falls candidate Cathy Bennett.
One of the advantages of not being involved in any of the campaigns is that you can sit back and see things as the outside world does. You can pick up tidbits from all over and look at the whole field more or less as it is.
That’s one of the reasons why the strategic message problems in the Bennett camp are fascinating as a case study. They are likely causing her some problems with her sign-ups, no matter what her supporters like Skinner and Coady or her Twitter Army insist. The two things go together. If there are problems with one, you can likely trace it back to the other. It will be interesting to see if Bennett and her team makes any strategic shift by the next debate.
Likewise, it will be interesting to see if Ball changes or if he stays the course. And of course, it will be interesting to see if Antle sharpens up his messaging. Bennett and Ball have strategic messages that are down to one short sentence: Stay the Course and Choose Change respectively.
Can Antle do the same?