, 05.15.2018 07:36 AM

Column: campaigns don’t matter

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.

They don’t.


  1. Luke says:

    The campaign will matter. It will give progressive voters enough clarity over the non conservative option. I think the NDP is going to win. Said a Nova Scotian who has never lived in Ontario, lacking any political experience.

    • Karl-Milton Marx-Friedman says:

      The NDP cannot win unless the Liberal vote collapses like Peterson ’90…that is unlikely based on the Liberal ground game and entrenched donor investment (that the NDP do not have). Instead a little game theory:

      Hard Liners [Libs] Pragmatists [Libs]
      Hard Liner [NDP] Ford as Premier NDP official opposition
      Pragmatist [NDP] Libs official opposition Coalition Government

      • Pedant says:

        1990 election is not comparable. Liberals achieved 32% that election and a strong second place. Tories were roughly flat from their 1987 results.

      • doconnor says:

        I’m sure the Liberals had a better ground game then the NDP in the 1990s and donations are a lot more restricted now. All 3 parties will be capable of spending the limit.

  2. Pedant says:

    Forum shows the PCs only 7 points ahead of the NDP (40 to 33). A few more polls to back that up, cementing the NDP as the anti-Ford conduit, and the momentum will shift to the NDP while the Liberals get squeezed down to 5-7 seats total. Kathleen Wynne will not survive in her own Don Valley West seat under that scenario.

  3. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    It’s always relatively easy to read the electorate. Trouble is, that reading ain’t worth a hill of beans if the plurality doesn’t get off their ass and vote strategically…

    Without question, Ford Nation will vote in droves.

  4. jen says:

    I think you are missing the key element to explain what is happening in the world with right wing populism. There is a cultural shift away from cultural liberalism towards economic anxiety and personal security. The right are campaigning against free trade agreements and immigration. Left leaning parties do not have a response except to talk about hot button social issues like abortion, bullying in schools, identity politics and sexual education programs. With so much economic and personal anxiety, its no surprise that right wing populism beats the current message of the left.

    • Steve T says:

      Bang-on. Identity politics have completely hijacked the agenda of the centre-left, and people are sick of it. People are sick of being told that equality is important, and then seeing some groups given special treatment. People are tired of hearing about funding of niche services and groups, while they lose their job because of broader economic issues.

      Most people would be happy with a fiscally-conservative and socially liberal party, but it always seems that one of those two things gets thrown away at the expense of the other.

      • Pedant says:

        Interesting how Liberals and NDPers don’t seem to support EQUALITY between public sector workers (takers) and private sector workers (producers).

  5. David Ray says:

    Fordian slip last night at his rally. “Lock her up” was heard and he said nothing. Plus ca change or past is prologue. Imagine five years of this slug running up and down Yonge St screaming “Get off my lawn.” at anyone who dares oppose him as he did at city hall with Rhino Rob bringing up the rear. Just wait til Ivanka, Jared, and the rest of the famille are brought in to run things. Truly Sad.

  6. Michael S says:

    Remember when Tom Mulcair was going to be Prime Minister? Then suddenly, he wasn’t, and the third place guy won.

    • Pedant says:

      Yes, because left-leaning voters liked T2’s hair. Too bad the skull underneath that hair is mostly empty. In any case Tom Mulcair’s party was leading in the polls for what, 2-3 weeks total? The Ontario PCs have been in majority territory for most of the past 2 YEARS. Not even close to comparable situations.

  7. Derek Pearce says:

    This column would have one believe that populists are simply unbeatable always everywhere in the western world and beyond yet that can’t be true. I know you’re loathe to help the Wizards so that’s not my goal, but write another column about how you beat populists WK. It must be possible. Surely this isn’t a locked down winning strategy for eternity is it?

    • Leif says:

      Not at all. Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate.
      Full stop.

      Popular vote in 2012/2016

      Obama 51.1% Romney 47.2%

      Clinton 48.2% Trump 46.1%

      A Democrat candidate needs to do better than that to win. (the California popular vote misleads the 2016 results as well)

      I could go on, but as an uneducated ill informed type I must stop now.

      Hillary Clinton and Kathleen Wynne both chose the pine box.

      Fresh air will follow at some point. Sooner rather than later hopefully. Take the walk in the snow already, both of you.

  8. Mezba says:

    Hillary was an awful candidate and Trump had a great campaign. His campaign was focused on getting the racist white vote out and it did.

    If Bernie wasn’t sabotaged, perhaps history would have been different.

    • Fred from BC says:

      “His campaign was focused on getting the racist white vote out and it did.”

      Riiight. And all those blacks and latinos who had previously voted for Obama just got confused and voted for Trump instead of Hillary. Got it.

  9. Robert White says:

    Strategically, WK is one smart cookie, but Hillary Clinton’s standing in the polls was destroyed when she slipped & fell for all the world to see. Orange Jesus Cheeto-head-in-chief then countered that with his purchased ‘clean bill of health’ & campaign sloganeering that Hillary was not physically fit for office. Moreover, once the news footage of Hillary passing out went viral it was GAME OVER for the Democrats based upon the physical health of the prospective candidates.

    Cheeto’s supporters flogged the ‘ill health’ narrative all over the Internet which exacerbated the hysteria and undermined confidence in her leadership.


  10. Fred from BC says:

    “Everyone knew who Hillary was”


    She was the person who *stole* the nomination from the rightful candidate, Bernie Sanders. She was even caught doing it, and the Democrats still let her get away with it.

    (because ‘Trump!’, right?)

    The voters expressed their disgust.

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