Sunday, October 19, 2008

This, On the Other Hand, is Absolutely True

Lloyd Axworthy, ladies and gentlemen:

In assessing campaigns, the media tend to focus on the air war – the leader's tour and the coverage it generates, advertising and the debates. This aspect of campaigning is obviously critical, but without a ground campaign to get voters to the polls the best advertising will not be enough to swing a close election. Parties still need active members. The Liberal party needs them more than most because it has a large potential voter base that needs more encouragement to vote.

In their preoccupation with leadership, media and party insiders are missing the real issue. The primary challenge for the Liberal party is that its cause is no longer compelling enough to persuade Canadians to give up their leisure time to join its ranks.

Party renewal, therefore, is not some romantic notion pursued by idealists. Renewal demands hard-headed realism that requires a Liberal party overhaul; rebuilding itself brick by brick, riding-by-riding so it is once again competitive on the ground.

On election night I watched the returns with Barney Danson, Dorothy Davey and several other veterans of past Liberal campaigns. Danson, a former defence minster, recalled that he would send his most experienced volunteers into the large apartment complexes to ensure turnout. Davey, a legendary organizer, recalled inviting undecided citizens for coffee. Others emphasized the importance of signs to raise morale among the troops and help name recognition. None of these tasks can be accomplished without active volunteers.

Social scientists back up the insights of these veteran campaigners. In Politics is Local: National Politics at the Grassroots, R. Kenneth Carty and Monroe Eagles assess elections from 1988 to 2000 and their data confirm the common-sense observations of experienced campaign managers: Good local campaigns can influence 4 per cent to 5 per cent of the vote; the addition of 100 volunteers shifts votes; signs shift votes and local campaign spending shifts votes. In the 2000 election, for example, Liberal candidates spent only 72 per cent of their allowed local limit. On average, candidates could have spent $19,000 more. If every Liberal candidate had spent to their legal limit, the Liberal vote could have increased by 5 per cent. And since public subsidies give the parties $1.75 per vote, unharvested votes cost the Liberal party millions.

Further, early data show that only three percentage points determined the winners in 25 ridings across the country last Tuesday. In southwestern Ontario, for example, five ridings were separated by 1 per cent. Four of these were won by the Conservative party and, had the Liberal party won them instead, Stephen Harper would be even less satisfied and Stéphane Dion less worried about the results of Canada's 40th election.

So, how can the Liberals get these 100 volunteers per constituency or ensure that a local fundraising campaign reaches the legal limit? Local ridings that raise money should keep more of it, rather than sending it to central headquarters. And party members should have a real say in policy direction. If the Liberal membership, as a whole, had been given the opportunity to debate issues like the Green Shift, the election results might have been different.

A reformed policy process should begin with a thinkers conference, preferably in Kingston, to remind Liberals of Lester Pearson's great initiative in 1960; every riding should debate the directions suggested and then there should be a great party rally or mass Internet vote to decide on priorities.

Bolding mine. I agree with this to the extent it exists, but Axworthy did miss something: activists do not come from the moderates. By that I don't necessarily mean the mythical "center" that everybody is babbling about these days, but simply that those people who volunteer are those who have some passion for something. It can be for the party, and sometimes it's for a person, but generally it's for a philosophy or ideology. That's why the Conservatives and NDP (and, until recently, Republicans in America) had such better GOTV efforts; because they're absolutely stuffed with people who are bursting at the seams with ideological zeal. Yes, such people make milquetoast Liberals uncomfortable, but they are your future, like it or not. They are your volunteers, they are your bloggers, they are your activists, and they are your donors, since those big $3000-a-plate dinners are a thing of the past.

And you aren't going to get them by abandoning your progressive wing, folks. Sure, the media doesn't know that. But Axworthy knows that. And America knows that, Republicans and Democrats alike. The NDP and Conservatives know that-and they're desperately hoping that you don't.

(I love that local policy bit, by the way. There is, as far as I've learned, some sort of thing like that in Canadian parties, but clearly it's role is infinitesimal compared to top-down policymaking.)

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