Avalanche of detail overwhelms Kathleen Wynne's message

Election campaigns are all about having a clear and powerful message that resonates with voters. During the first week of Ontario's election campaign, it's not been totally clear what Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne's message is.

'If I'm found wanting because I don't have a clear enough bumper sticker, so be it,' says Liberal leader

Ontario Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne watches a virtual reality demonstration on an elevated work platform before making a campaign announcement at the Finishing Trades Institute of Ontario in Toronto on Monday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
Election campaigns are all about having a clear and powerful message that resonates with voters. During the first week of Ontario's election campaign, it's not been totally clear what Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne's message is.

For the past two days, the Liberals have thrown consecutive avalanches of information at reporters during their morning campaign announcements, the prime time for political messaging. Statements by Wynne and two of her candidates lasted 20 minutes on Monday; on Tuesday, they went on for 25 minutes. 

Tuesday's focus was high-speed rail, an important issue for the Waterloo region, but the message that Wynne must have intended to get across (that only the Liberals will deliver on high-speed rail) got overwhelmed in the volume of detail. 

How can this possibly succeed in cutting through the noise to reach voters in their busy lives? 

After Wynne provided heaps of detail on Monday aiming to prove the NDP made a multi-billion-dollar error in its platform, Queen's Park journalist Randy Rath of CHCH-TV suggested that voters are basing their decisions on emotion.

"How do you combat that?' he asked. "When you talk about Chart 3.22 on page 217 of the budget, is anybody listening to you?"

Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne speaks to reporters during a campaign stop in Waterloo on Tuesday. (Andrew Ryan/The Canadian Press)
Wynne's response is worth reading in full, because it reveals how she's communicating:

"It is also really important, that as this campaign unfolds, that we look at what we are actually saying we will do, and we can do. So when you talk about competence, and you talk what's doable, and what's actually practical, that's what we're saying here today. I get that there's lots of churn and people have lots of questions about our government and I understand that. I probably more than anybody in the province get that. But I am also not willing to stand back and say, 'Look, the NDP shares somewhat of a value system with us, so we're not going to ask questions about whether what they're saying they can do, they can actually do.' That's irresponsible. This is an election campaign and people are going to be making  very important choices. And they need to know if the plans that are being put forward are realistic. And they can like them or not like them. And they will make that choice. But they have to know what's doable and what's not doable." 

Here's the thing: winning an election is not just about developing the best policies, it's also about how you communicate them. 

During the first debate on May 7, Wynne frequently lapsed into technocratic language. It peaked with a reference to "inclusionary zoning," which is a perfectly valid policy to encourage more housing, but it's a phrase that simply doesn't mean a thing to voters. 

"We teach our clients that simplicity, repetition and volume work," said Warren Kinsella, a longtime Liberal strategist and principal of the Daisy Group communications  firm.  "That's what [PC leader Doug] Ford and [NDP leader Andrea] Horwath are doing. Sounding like a deputy minister at a policy convention doesn't work. It's how you lose."
Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne meets the founders of the company Sagecomm and their children while campaigning in London on Tuesday. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

Although Kinsella was a key figure on campaigns for Jean Chretien and Dalton McGuinty, he worked against Wynne in her leadership bid and has been outspokenly critical of her chief strategist David Herle. 

"A daily frenzy of seemingly-unrelated announcements doesn't equal having a narrative," he said in an email Tuesday. "When you don't have a narrative, you don't have much of a chance." 

Contrast Wynne's communication style with what comes from Ford's mouth. His messaging is simple, some would argue simplistic. Yes, he reads from a teleprompter, and his staff are quick to end questions from reporters when they fear Ford is getting out of his depth. But he speaks in easily digestible morsels of information, serving up the clips that get on the newscasts. 

Wynne's intelligence is unquestionable. She clearly has a strong grasp of the intricacies of policies, an incisive understanding of the nuances of governing. But during an election campaign, leaders have to boil all that knowledge down to strong, clear messaging that resonate with voters. 
Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne makes a campaign stop at the tech company eleven-x in Waterloo on Tuesday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

This is not to say details are unimportant. Party leaders need to show enough command of details to prove they`re competent enough to run a government with a $150 billion budget. That's why journalists keep pressing Ford and the PC campaign for details of how he would turn his promises into reality, and why the NDP platform is getting increased scrutiny as the party seems to be rising in the polls.

But in an election campaign, the leader's main job is to communicate clearly the essence of their vision, the compelling reasons to vote for their party, and preferably do it with passion, emotion, and an appeal to the voter's gut. 

Cluttering up that core message with details simply interferes. Leave that for the platform and the news releases. 

As I watched Wynne campaign in Waterloo, London and Guelph on Tuesday, her two most powerful moments came when she dropped the details and turned her sights on Ford, speaking strongly about the risk she believes he poses to the province. She did it best during a quick, off-the-cuff speech to the Liberal faithful at a craft brewery in Guelph. She also showed a flash of passion during the morning announcement, so it jumped out amid the avalanche of detail about high-speed rail.
Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne makes a campaign stop at the Wellington Craft Brewery in Guelph. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

"He's just not exactly a details kind of guy," Wynne said of her PC rival. "He will say he can do everything, that it will be the biggest and the best that everyone has ever seen. But there isn't a plan.He does not even attempt to have a plan. Slogans are not a plan."

Wynne dismissed Ford`s campaigning style as being "about slogans and bumper stickers and angry division, more than it is about responsible decision-making, principled policies that are going to be able to help people."

At a campaign stop in London later on Tuesday,  I asked Wynne whether communicating more like Ford might work for her. 

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"Slogans are not policy," she responded. "Slogans are not solutions to the concerns and needs that confront the people in Ontario." 

Wynne said she is not going to "become" Doug Ford. 

"I'm going to tell you the truth," said Wynne. "I'm going to talk to you about why it's necessary that we invest in child care, and in mental health supports, and in hospitals, and in high speed rail, because all of those things are necessary. You can then compare me to Doug Ford, and if I'm found wanting because I don't have a clear enough bumper sticker, so be it." 


Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.