Now that Ontario’s election is underway – and Quebec’s and New Brunswick’s are in the offing – you’re going to hear this tired old chestnut a lot: “campaigns matter.”
Do they? Well, sure, sort of.
But certainly not as much as the cliché suggests they do. Not anymore.
Case Study One: Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. My wife Lisa and I worked on that one, in Maine, New Hampshire and at her Brooklyn headquarters.
Hillary’s campaign was the best-financed, best-organized, best-prepared campaign I have ever seen. She had the smartest people, the smartest policies, the most money, and the greatest get-out-the-vote organization in modern political history.
Her loathsome opponent, meanwhile, spent virtually no money on advertising. His campaign was run by crooks, amateurs and grifters. He was wildly disorganized and undisciplined. He, and his team, did everything wrong. But he still “won” – thanks to (a) less than 70,000 votes (b) and Russia manipulation of state-run voting systems in (c) three places – Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Lots of uneducated theories persist about why Hillary “lost,” however. Like: that she should’ve gone to Wisconsin. Like: James Comey’s reckless intervention mid-campaign. Like: nobody really knew who Hillary was – or they did, and they didn’t like her.
Here’s a memo straight from folks who actually worked on Hillary’s campaign folks: that’s all bunk. Everyone knew who Hillary was, and the ones who didn’t like her? They werenever going to vote for her. Comey’s suggestion that we were under criminal investigation hurt, sure – but our opponent had admitted to sexually assaulting women on tape, too. And Wisconsin? Please: spare me. In the final days, all of Brooklyn H.Q. was emptying out to head to Pennsylvania, which had twice the electoral college votes that Wisconsin did.
The unvarnished reality is this: Hillary Clinton, and those of us who were (and remain) honoured and privileged to work for her, believed that campaigns matter, too. Her loss – and Donald Trump’s “win” – showed that campaigns don’t matter nearly as much, anymore. They just don’t.
Case Study Two: the Doug Ford campaign.
Doug Ford – who I know and like, full disclosure – is not a professional politician. He may have been a city councillor for a single term, but he is as far from a professional politician as one can get. He does not have anywhere near the experience that Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne and Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath have. Not even close.
Unlike the other two, he has never led a political party before. Unlike the other two, he has never ruled a caucus before. Unlike the other two, he has never participated in a leader’s debate before last Monday.
But he’s still winning, and he may be winning big. Some media polls suggest he has a twenty-point lead. Internal party polling, meanwhile, suggests that the Grits are heading towards third party status. And perhaps no party status at all.
How could such a thing happen to the once-mighty Ontario Liberal machine? Three reasons. One, Kathleen Wynne needed to take a walk in the proverbial snow way back in 2017. Two, the Grits needed to jettison the profligate Martinite crew around Wynne – the ones who destroyed the federal Liberal party a decade ago. Three, they needed to be infused with new blood and new faces.
They didn’t do any of those things.
Instead, they are muttering “campaigns matter” to each other. Just wait for the campaign, they say. We’ve got incriminating tapes and dirt on Doug. We’ve got big surprises coming. We’ve got the better candidate.
Newsflash, Wynne Wizards: the Clinton folks believed the same things. They were running against an opponent who was similarly populist. He said the wrong things, he was unstrategic, he got in trouble in the media. So they perfectly executed a traditional campaign – against an imperfect, untraditional candidate.
Traditional political campaigns do not work against populists.
Populists possess an extraordinary magical power: they are able to transform an attack on them into an attack on those who support them. And that is why virtually everything Kathleen Wynne said to Doug Ford in that first leaders’ debate last week – that he doesn’t understand how government works, that he doesn’t have experience, that he doesn’t get it, that he is out of his depth, blah blah blah – ricocheted off of him and onto the unhappy people who support him. And thereby wedded them more closely to their man, Doug Ford.
An attack on Doug Ford, you see, is an attack on them. Hillary Clinton realized that after her “deplorables” remark – but too late.
Kathleen Wynne still doesn’t. She thinks traditional campaigns still matter, too.