Edmonton·Opinion

Why campaigns matter, and can ruin pollster's prognostications

“Political insiders know that large portions of the electorate are moveable; they just need a reason to be moved.” Former MP and MLA Brent Rathgeber on the importance of campaigns, and why they can be game changers.

The outcome is not predetermined

Many of the rural voters who participated in the focus group felt like the parties attacking one another had taken over the focus from election issues. (CBC)

There is an old adage in politics that "the only poll that matters is the one on election day."

Although that is generally true, a more practical way of repeating the same maxim is that campaigns matter. At the expense of using another cliché, it is said that a week can be a lifetime in politics. If so, four weeks can serve as a millennium.

Yes, a lot can happen in a 28-day writ period.

As a result, one should be skeptical of polls that predict an outcome of an election before it has even started. Why? Because campaigns matter and what happens during the campaign is at least as large a contributing factor to the outcome as a snapshot-in-time poll taken before the puck has even been dropped.

Ruined prognostications

Take the last two provincial elections in Alberta.

In 2015, at the outset, few pundits (and not many more NDP candidates) predicted that the Orange Crush would end the 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty. Even going back to 2012, Danielle Smith and the Wildrose were projected to easily form a majority government until a couple of high-profile bozo eruptions completely derailed the campaign and ruined all of the pollster's prognostications.

Campaigns matter and performance affects outcomes.

Although pundits and politicos eat, sleep and breathe politics, we are a tiny fraction of the population.

To the average voter, and certainly to the citizen who may or may not even vote, pre-writ periods are irrelevant. They are simply too busy with their own lives and their own families to pay much, if any, attention to what is going on in federal, provincial or municipal politics. They may casually follow the news but are otherwise too preoccupied to put much thought into who they might or might not support in a yet-to-be called election.

There are more of those voters than there are pundits. Their impressions, formulated almost entirely during the writ period, will affect the outcome more than the largely predetermined votes of the politicos.

If it were otherwise, candidates would not bother campaigning.

If the outcome has been predetermined, what is the point of advertising, lawn signs, rallies or door-knocking? The outcome is not predetermined.

Media fixation

Political insiders know that large portions of the electorate are moveable; they just need a reason to be moved. Accordingly, we will be bombarded with campaigning both of a provincial and local variety.

The media will be fixated on the leaders and the leaders' tours.

The party leaders will feed the beast by providing carefully scripted rallies and events, orchestrated not for the attendees but rather for the voters tuning into the television and newspaper reports and watching online. The leaders will also have scheduled media availabilities. However, those scrums are also orchestrated and the polished leaders will take limited questions, often only from friendly media sources and irrespective of the source, provide safe, talking point answers.

Given how news travels instantaneously, leaders will need to be well briefed at all times, as they may be called upon to comment on a world event, a federal announcement or a candidate who has gone off script. They will be judged by the electorate, not so much on the quality of their answers but on their poise and conviction when delivering it. Style over substance. And when unsure, stick to the talking points.

An improper response or a deer-in-the-headlights reaction will throw a campaign into chaos.

When the disengaged pay attention

As election day nears, more and more of the formerly disengaged will start paying attention.

For many casual observers, the leaders debate will be the single biggest factor in determining their voter preference. The leaders will be meticulously prepared. Their answers need to be clever and preferably short enough to fit into a seven-second soundbite, as many voters will take their impressions from the journalists covering the debate, rather than from actually watching it themselves.

A voter's impression of the respective leaders is arguably the biggest contributing factor in that voter's intention.

Canadian politics has become so leader centric that many voters mistakenly believe that we elect our first ministers. (We don't elect our governments; we elect our legislatures.) Regardless, the voter's impression of the leader will largely determine party preference, resulting in a vote for a local candidate flag bearer of that party.

Of much less importance will be the local candidates' forums.

These events are attended largely, but not exclusively, by supporters of one candidate or the other.

There are few votes in play. However, the forums are frequently covered by local and social media. A bozo eruption or off-colour remark will get widely reported and the party leaders will be asked to comment. A stellar performance will fly under the radar.

The ground game

The local campaigns are, however, critically important in the so called "ground game."

The campaigns will spend the first 27 days identifying potential supporters by some combination of telephone canvassing, social media monitoring and door-knocking. They will spend the 28th day doing everything humanly possible to make sure that identified supporters actually make it to the voting station. They will be phoned and e-mailed, reminding them that it is voting day, where their polling station is and offering, if needed, a ride to the polls.

A well-oiled machine will have scrutineers at every poll, and they will know exactly which of their identified supporters have actually voted. That information will be relayed back to the campaign office so that phone calls and further cajoling of the absentee supporters can be commenced.

Every riding matters

As a provincial election is really 87 local elections, with the party winning the most of them given the opportunity to form government, every riding matters. An efficient ground game can affect the outcome by five or more percentage points.

Some ridings may be predetermined based largely on previous voter preferences. But in a close contest, the strength of the local campaign will be the difference between winning and losing.

So as interesting as pre-writ polls may be, if they were determinative there would be no need to have an actual election. The performance of the various leaders and the strength of their local campaign "machines" will be critical in convincing and mobilizing voters respectively.

All of this matters, because the election matters.

A 28-day job interview

How we are governed and who governs us is critically important.

Think of the campaign as a protracted 28-day job interview, with the leaders auditioning to be the CEO of our provincial government. How they perform, how well they answer questions, how they react to conflict or adversity are critical aspects of proving oneself worthy of being entrusted with our support.

Some will shine; some will falter. Some will continue in mediocrity. All will be judged and should be scrutinized because the keys to the premier's office should only be given to those who are worthy of the honour.

As we have seen, big leads can vanish, and long shots can emerge as contenders. Most importantly, casual voters, who will determine the outcome, are just now beginning to tune in.

Campaigns matter. And as Yogi Berra famously said: "It ain't over till its over."