Parties’ National Campaigns – Behind the Scenes

In some ways, the 2015 federal election campaign is unique. A near-record-setting 11-week duration, the sophistication of the major parties’ social media and advertising approaches, and a large portion of the electorate appear to be undecided (70% according to an August 18 Abacus Data poll), all make this campaign stand out.  In some ways, however, campaigns never change. The inner workings of the campaigns themselves – the behind-the-scenes efforts undertaken by each party as it charts a course towards Voting Day – is one such example.

Most Canadians see the parties’ activities during the campaign as a blur of photo ops, campaign stops, policy announcements, and live debates.  The more discrete activities happening in the background – the real machinery of the campaigns – are happening away from the cameras and microphones.  Below is a short synopsis of some of the key roles and responsibilities behind the major parties’ campaigns.

The “War Room” – On a major campaign, the party war room is a buzz of activity 24/7, with the campaign manager(s) and other party officials overseeing communications, tour, logistics, opposition research, and regional engagement. They also push out necessary direction and information to all 338 local campaigns across the country with a special team dedicated to the so-called “targeted seats.”  This on-the-ground team is stationary, working from Ottawa to support the party’s national campaign roll-out.

Leader’s Tours – In addition to the war room, the major parties have a leader’s tour, which involves its respective leader travelling from coast to coast to coast, visiting key strategic regions and ridings and making platform announcements along the way.

A core team of advisors accompany the leader (and typically his or her spouse/children) on this travel, which is hectic, complex and exhausting.  Much of the direction for these activities comes from the wagon master, an individual responsible for “keeping the trains running on time” and ensuring as seamless a process as possible as the leader’s tour moves around.

It’s important to note that the itinerary of a leader’s tour is typically set 2-3 weeks out, with an advance team moving ahead of the campaign “wagons” to identify event opportunities, assess venue options and manage other logistics and organization. Most campaigns do not announce the leader’s travel plans in advance, however, for security reasons and to accommodate for last-minute changes.

Leader’s Visits to Ridings – At a local riding level, a visit by a leader’s tour is a major, all-hands-on-deck event.  Depending on the location, the party’s war room typically ensures that a large group (200-500 people) can be confirmed to attend.  These events present a huge opportunity to mobilize and energize the local campaigns (sometimes more than one), and to galvanize supporters that might not yet be locked in as identified voters for that particular party.

Most importantly, a leader’s visit will likely only come once.  If a leader goes twice to the same riding, it is usually a good indicator that the riding is a targeted one, where a tight race is unfolding.  It is also worth noting that in some cases, parties can also appoint well-known political figures (usually current or former cabinet ministers) to do similar “secondary tours.”  For example, the Conservatives’ Québec lieutenant, Denis Lebel, has his own bus and is touring the province with his own set itinerary.

Candidate Support – Each war room normally has staff responsible for providing support to candidates on the ground.  These are the ‘go to’ people who provide necessary information and research to candidates participating in local candidate debates, for example.

Media – In relation to the leaders’ tours, few get closer than the media covering them.  Each major media outlet in Canada assigns at least one reporter to each leader.  Often, after a number of weeks on the campaign, reporters are moved to another leader’s tour in order to avoid any perceived notion of bias in that individual’s coverage.  Reporters travel in a separate media bus or at the back of the leader’s plane. They are normally offered daily media briefings (or spin!) by the given party’s spokesperson.  Interestingly, the bus carrying media typically follows a different itinerary than the leader’s bus (to avoid unfortunate stories and photos about the leader’s team getting lost, the bus breaking down, etc.)  For similar reasons, reporters would not normally stay at the same hotel as the party leader and his/her team.

In closing…

Canadians are right to engage with their political leaders in the opportunities provided most readily to them – namely televised debates, media coverage and the like.  However, the activities happening mostly out of public view and underpinning the success (or not) of the major parties’ campaigns are equally fascinating to consider!