In campaign war rooms, some days it’s better to be hated than loved.
Let me explain. Way, way back in the fall of 2000, a cheer went up in the Liberal Party war room (I know, I was there). Then-media baron Conrad Black, we had learned, had given an interview to the Times of London. In the November 1999 chit-chat, Lord Black declared that by the time he got through with Prime Minister Jean Chretien, there wouldn’t be enough left “to squeeze through an eye dropper.”
Lord Black, soon to become better known as prisoner 18330-424, was mightily miffed that Chretien hadn’t changed the rules to permit him to become a member of the British House of Lords.
So Black, who then owned the largest newspaper chain in the country, decided he would use his papers to ensure the Liberals’ defeat at the hands of Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance. That, as you may recall, is how the National Post stopped being a newspaper, circa 2000, and became a pro-conservative election pamphlet.
Oh, how we nasty Grit war- room types loved that Conrad Black “eye dropper” quote! How we adored it! Some days, when no one was looking, I would run that quote all over my thinning pate, and get all tingly.
With Chretien’s approval, we did our level best to ensure every living, breathing Canadian voter knew that Conrad Black had said he’d put the duly elected prime minister through “an eye dropper.” Instead of hiding from the media’s disapproval, we publicized it.
Result? We won significantly more seats in 2000 (when the National Post existed) than we did in 1997 (when it didn’t).
Which brings me, in typically circuitous and long-winded fashion, to my point: In 2011, with elections aplenty — federally, provincially — sometimes political parties are best judged by who their media “enemies” are, and not their media “friends.”
Thus, this week, various Ontario Liberal campaign volunteers (of which I am proudly one) could be spotted shouting “woot!” when they espied the front page of the newspaper you now clutch in your sweaty maulers.
Wednesday’s Toronto Sun front: “DALTON’S FIBERALS.” Tuesday: “PREEM FLUNKS FISCAL TEST.” Also Tuesday: “DALTONOMICS: ONTARIO’S ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE LAGS.” And that’s just this week! Last week was (happily) even worse!
Now, if you are a charter member of the latte-sipping, Volvo-driving, Lib-left establishment like me, those headlines should upset you, right?
They should cost you votes, right? Um, no.
One of the brainiest political minds I ever encountered belongs to Kathleen Hall-Jamieson, a U.S. poli-sci prof. She’s written books about the impact newspaper editorializing has on voters. Her conclusion? It’s somewhere between zippo and zilch.
In fact, Hall-Jamieson and others (like Washington’s Pew Centre) have found newspaper editorials during elections may “dissuade as many as they persuade.”
Three things are at work, here. One, as Hall-Jamieson and the Pew folks have written, voters aren’t dumb. They don’t like being told how to vote — at all.
Two, most voters regard the media as a special interest group, with priorities they often don’t share. They’ll read an editorial, to be sure, but the editorialist’s point of view is just one of many things voters will consider as they hover above a ballot slip.
Three — and as the Pew Centre’s data shows — if someone like Conrad Black becomes openly partisan and starts explicitly campaigning for a political party in the pages of his newspaper, voters will get mad and start heading in the opposite direction. Ipso facto, this week, we Ontario Liberal types saw our main opponent, the Ontario PCs, slip to third place in Toronto.
So, to my many editorial friends at the Ontario-based Sun papers, I have one modest request: Keep up the good work!