“What does Paul Davis do now?”
That was the start of the conversation. A serious question after the latest in a string of by-election losses for the provincial Conservatives deserved an equally serious answer.
Well, said your humble e-scribbler, that assumes he and his fellow Conservatives actually want to do anything. Davis was the leadership candidate who promised to keep the party on its existing course in every respect. They firmly rejected not only making changes but even appearing to make changes.
Everything we can see – poll results, talk around town, you name it - says that voters want some changes in politics. The Conservatives refuse to change. And so it is that they have lost by-election after by-election after by-election.
It’s not rocket science.
The last two by-elections describe the magnitude of the Conservative political failure as graphically as anyone could. In Trinity – Bay de Verde, the Liberals crushed the Conservatives with 3,074 votes to 1,363.
Humber East was confirmation that the Conservative Party is a political beast with the flesh falling in sheets from its bones as it moves. Lary Wells had been Tom Marshall’s executive assistant. Marshall was widely respected and campaigned intensely on his friend’s behalf. But even that was not good enough up against a Liberal candidate who was stolid but hardly an unstoppable force.
The pundits considered the Conservatives would hang on to that seat. Eric Grenier’s assessment of polls and elections trends predicted the Conservatives would hang on to the seat with a 10 point lead. Local political reporters all heard the candid assessments from party workers themselves who considered the result would be close, with the Conservatives likely coming out on top.
No such luck. The Liberals won the seat with 2263 seats to the Conservatives’ 1454. It was a stunning upset and one that, from some reports, likely surprised even Liberal party organizers.
For what it’s worth, the New Democratic Party finished with less than 10% of the winner in Trinity – Bay de Verde. Their candidate in Humber East finished with 14% of the votes won by the Liberal. The results confirm that Lorraine Michael and her supporters have succeeded in returning the party to a level of political irrelevance not seen since the heady days of John Greene and Cle Newhook.
These two by-election wins confirm that both the Liberals’ political organization and strategy are far superior to that of the Conservatives. As SRBP has noted before, they have a cadre of experienced, trained campaigners who are using not only newer technology but newer campaign tactics. They are identifying their voters well before the campaign starts. The Liberals can then focus during the campaign on fixing them firmly in place. The last element is the Liberals’ “get-out-the-vote” organization. They get more of their votes to the polls. That’s how you win.
Some will leap to the easy conclusion that this is a story of technology. Liberal computers beat Conservative poster board and markers. It’s an easy conclusion, but it’s fundamentally wrong.
Not so long ago, highly organized campaigns would have done with index cards what the Liberals do with smartphones. With the advent of computers, smart campaigners converted the cards to spreadsheet software like Excel. Later still, they switched to custom-designed programs of the kind that Republicans and Democrats have been using in the United States and more recently that the three major parties in Canada use.
The technology doesn’t produce the victory. It facilitates the collection and analysis of information that forms the bedrock on which the action is based. Any strategy consists of four steps: research, plan, act, evaluate. The technology the Liberals are using allows them to efficiently do that first bit, which in turn makes it easier to do the second bit, the third bit, and the fourth bit before starting the first bit over again.
The technology the Liberals are using also allows them to revise their information during the campaign and make adjustments on the fly. You can do the same thing with slide rulers and pencils: the computers just allow you to do it faster and with far fewer people. The technology makes the Liberal campaign more efficient.
Big Giant Heads and the ABC Legacy
As SRBP has noted before, the Conservative devastation that has unfolded over the past four years is what Danny Williams’ vicious ABC campaign wrought for the local Conservatives. They’ve been cut off from the national party’s organizational expertise and all that went with it. Williams and his followers major recall with glee their efforts in 2008 but the reality is that Williams’ campaign was a strategic blunder for the party.
Make no mistake. Even without their federal cousins, the local Conservatives had the money to import American expertise and build their own political machinery. They didn’t. They built a political machine that looked good on the outside but inside, the whole thing was hollow. The party that ran an ego campaign in 2003 had become, by 2010, nothing but a campaign bus with Williams’ head plastered down the side. When the Big Giant Head left, so too did the entire Conservative campaign. The stuff that made the campaign run – the people and the technology – simply never existed.
The Conservatives had enough momentum to coast through the 2011 election, aided by a Liberal Party that was little more than a twitching corpse. But that was all they had. Kathy Dunderdale, Tom Marshall, and now Paul Davis have shown that they only understand the appearance of their past success: Dunderdale’s 2011 campaign was a Danny-esque ego campaign, right down to the Giant Head on the side of a bus. Conservative talking points recite the glories of the past. But how things looked back then is all they know.
Even if the Conservatives had the Tory equivalent of the Liberal technology, they wouldn’t be able to do anything with it. That’s because the Conservatives haven’t done anything to connect with voters. Paul Davis’ message of staying the course while voters sought a new direction means that, fundamentally, the party isn’t doing anything to attract supporters. Voter management software doesn’t matter a jot or a tittle if you don’t have voters to manage. A party that does nothing to attract voters is going to lose elections any way.
And that’s ultimately what is obvious in the by-election results, especially in Humber East. It’s been obvious in every single one of the other by-elections since 2011, perhaps most dramatically in the Liberal wins in the traditional Conservative bedrock of metro St. John’s. The Conservatives do not appeal to voters and have no interest in appealing to voters.
Without the support of voters, you just won’t win elections, no matter how slick and shiny your technology is.