In the lead up to the 2015 federal election we have decided to take a critical look at the different styles of campaigns that parties will undertake leading up to the October vote. The character of a campaign can change based on a number of variables, as no two campaigns are ever exactly the same.
In Part One, we reviewed campaigns run on issues. This installment will look at campaigns run on the strength of leader personality.
Campaigns run on the strength of leader personality are defined by a popular frontrunner who captures the public’s hearts – and subsequently, their votes. Rather than focusing on a particular set of issues, the leader relies on their compelling personality and vague calls-to-action in order to galvanize voters. For many campaigns using this method, it is expected that a strong leader personality will be a “rising tide that will float all boats” and increase support for all candidates.
Successful personality campaigns are hard to manufacture without a compelling, media-friendly candidate. The leader must be able to respond to, and engage with media in an organic way that resonates on some level with voters. Personality alone, however, is not enough to make for a successful campaign.
Successful personality campaigns couple a compelling leader with a “call to action” that is just vague enough as to apply in some way to the majority of voters. A successful “call to action” must engage voters to “fill
in the blank” with a key issue that is important to them, making the campaign more personal. It must also draw stark comparisons between the leadership style of the candidate, and his or her opponents.
The most obvious example of a personality campaign with a call to action is the 2008 U.S. presidential election that pitted Democrat Barak Obama and his message of “Hope” and “Change” against Republican John McCain. Obama, a relative unknown until the 2008 campaign, was a compelling speaker with a young, social-media savvy team. His message of hope and change juxtaposed his comparative youth and the fact that he would be the first black President against John McCain, a white republican who was 72 years old at the time. As a result, Obama successfully won the presidency with 52.9% of the popular vote, and 365 of the 538 electoral votes.
The call to action in the words “hope” and “change” mean little in terms of campaign promises. It was up to the voters to decide what those words meant – they filled in the implicit blank left behind “hope” and “change” with whatever issue was most important to them.
Interestingly, when looking for a comparative Canadian example of a successful personality campaign, one need look no further than the 2010 election of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Ford, an often erratic city councillor with a habit of putting his foot in his mouth when speaking with media, defied conventional wisdom about what a polished politician should look and act like. Rather than dismiss Ford for his buffoonery, voters found his “straight talk” a refreshing change from the elite intellectualism of his primary opponent, George Smitherman.
Ford represented the viewpoint of the “common man” which became extremely successful when paired with two catchy slogans that resonated with Toronto voters: “Stop the Gravy Train” and “Respect for taxpayers.” Ford committed to “stopping the Gravy train” by pointing to numerous examples of his colleagues spending taxpayers money for meals and parties. Very little effort was made by the Rob Ford campaign to clarify what Mr. Ford would do if elected mayor, only that he would be different from his predecessors. In the end, Rob Ford won the election with 47% of the popular vote.
Key elements of a successful personality campaign:
There are a few obvious pitfalls for candidates who run their campaigns on the strength of their own personality. Although it can be a successful election strategy, many candidates who are elected as the result of a personality campaign find voters disillusioned with their performance when they fail to deliver on the vague promise of “change”.
How to use Personality Campaigns to your advantage
Personality campaigns are difficult for issue proponents to leverage, as the overarching message of the campaign is left intentionally vague, and therefore issues are sometimes difficult to insert. That said, leaders, like all elected officials, are particularly sensitive to the needs of three key types of voters:
- Constituents from their riding
- Voters that form their traditional “base”
- Voters in a key demographic that have the potential to be supporters
If you are able to successfully position your issue as one that can enhance the image of the leader, you stand a significantly stronger chance of seeing your issue advance. In the case with personality campaigns, convincing the party leader is more important than building support amongst party members, however supportive party members can assist in building the case for the leader.
Grassroots campaigns – particularly social media campaigns – are an excellent way to capture the attention of a leader running a personality campaign. Grassroots campaigns have a higher chance of success for populist issues (that many people would feel comfortable supporting), or if you have a particularly active presence on social media and can leverage your connections to build momentum, which will be important to help build the candidates profile.