Canada election 2015: Deconstructing the campaign playbook

Professional sports teams have them, and so do political parties — the strategic document that lays out when to make an offensive move, or a defensive one. Already, the federal parties are showing signs of sticking to the plan to get through a long and potentially treacherous campaign.

It's early in a long campaign, but patterns from past campaigns have started to emerge

The longest campaign in modern Canadian history got off to an unusual start with a debate just a few days in, but expect the pace to build as election day draws nearer. (Canadian Press/Reuters)

Professional sports teams have them, and so do political parties: playbooks that lay out when to make an offensive move, or a defensive one, how to outflank your opponent's bid for the spotlight — and, importantly, how to keep your team moving.

With this month's mid-summer election call coming earlier than many expected, and the first debate of the campaign following just days later, the longest campaign in modern Canadian history got off to an unusual start.

But some familiar patterns from past campaign playbooks have started to emerge.

The parties' daily roll-out often looks like this:

  • A morning announcement of some policy for voters, followed by questions from reporters.
  • In the afternoon, a speech to supporters that emphasizes the morning announcement.
  • Then, sometimes, the day is capped off by an evening rally.

These three events are often not in the same location, as the parties, with media in tow, travel from one city, and one province to another.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, speaks to supporters from the campaign office of NDP Courtenay-Alberni candidate Gord Johns, left, during a campaign stop in Parksville, B.C., on Aug. 18. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Expect to see this pattern repeated, every day, over the coming weeks.

The Conservatives have followed this most closely so far.

This week, both the Liberals the New Democrats are running more "official campaigns" with the media in tow, so expect a similar pattern from those two parties, too.

There are other slight variations, such as the mode of transportation, whether it's bus or plane, but this schedule of daily events is seen as a general playbook of an election campaign for all the federal parties.

Jim Armour was the director of communications for Conservative Leader Stephen Harper when he was in opposition, from 2002 to 2005.

He says the point of the morning announcement is to "set the agenda for day."

"If you come out first thing, then you can force the opposition to react to it. If you're lucky, you're throwing off your opponents," Armour explains.

In fact, Armour remembers well how before the 2005-06 campaign, the trend was to release news later in the day.

But after losing to Liberal leader Paul Martin in 2004, the Conservatives decided to change, and as Armour puts it, give the media their "gainsburger" of the day early, referring to the morsel of news the media is thrown to chew on.

This became even more evident with the Conservatives this week as the party attempted, where time zones allowed, to avoid questions from the ongoing testimony at the fraud trial of former Conservative senator Mike Duffy.

The whistlestop

The pace speeds up toward the end of a campaign, just like the final push in a championship game.

That's when the playbook turns to something called "whistlestops."

Imagine a train pulling into a station briefly, people get off, get back on, and the train moves on.

That's the origin of the political whistlestop, only now it is usually a bus the leader steps off to find supporters gathered close by.

Rallies give the leaders the chance to press the flesh with as many supporters as possible. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau greeted supporters at a Liberal Party campaign office in Toronto on Friday. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press )

There's a brief rally, a short speech, and then the leader is back on the bus, and off to the next stop.

Armour says the idea behind this strategy is to show "momentum" and that the leader is "working hard for the job."

He points to the late NDP leader Jack Layton's final days of the last election campaign in 2011, as he stopped in several cities, coast to coast, just before election day.

Demonstrating momentum

"You want a lot of events, with many people, that show momentum and excitement and energy, with a leader on the way to victory," Armour says.

The first part of the election campaign, like the first few quarters of a football game, are well planned out in advance.

There's the first week to cross the country, followed by a few weeks that focus on key seat-rich regions: Quebec, the Greater Toronto Area, the Lower Mainland in British Columbia.

And as election day gets closer, like a referee's final whistle, parties focus on areas where they need to shore up support, ridings they feel they can take, or might be about to lose.

So the schedules in the final few weeks can be last-minute, chaotic and kept close to the vest.

"It's a little like a sprint — and a marathon," Armour says.

The wagon master

That makes life challenging for the wagon master. That's the person who is charge of all logistics, such as arrivals and departures, facilities, hotel rooms, and transportation.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and wife Laureen depart Ottawa on Sunday, Aug. 9 to fly to Quebec City for a campaign stop. Canadians will head to the polls on Oct. 19. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Alphée Moreau was the Liberal wagon master for many election campaigns. His advice: "You set the rules for everyone at the beginning of it."

That means making sure everyone knows when the buses leave. Phone calls are made to an advance person at the next stop, to make sure "we have easy and quick access in and out of the event."

Moreau recalls one other key checklist: the one that ensures that things runs smoothly for the media covering your campaign.

"Ascertain that all have rooms at the hotel, a media room with all technical needs in place on arrival, food — and, to close it out, make sure of a well-stocked beer and wine fridge."


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