Ethnic riding targeting key to Conservatives' 2011 victory

The Conservatives' 2011 election victory followed a strategy that targeted several ethnically diverse swing ridings. The CBC's Laura Payton looks at the strategy that finally delivered the long-sought "strong, stable" majority.

More than 30 'very ethnic' target ridings led to majority government in 2011

The Conservatives' 2011 election victory followed a strategy that targeted several ethnically diverse swing ridings. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

It's no secret that a highly targeted, well-financed campaign was one of the Conservative Party's strategies in the 2011 election that produced their long-sought majority government.

CBC News has learned that strategy was more extensive, ambitious and ultimately successful than previously thought, targeting more than 30 ridings and delivering successes in key battleground ridings, particularly in Ontario.

After two straight minority governments, Conservatives welcomed what they like to call a "strong, stable" majority, winning a 14-seat margin over the opposition parties on May 2, 2011. That success was thanks in large part to their ability to target swing seats in ridings with large ethnic populations by "narrow-casting."

That technique, in which a party's messaging and advertising is tailored to specific groups, helped the Conservatives take in 626,201 more votes than in the previous election, increasing their previous seat total by 23 in the 41st Parliament of Canada.

With two Conservative seats up for grabs in November byelections and another hanging in the balance with this week's Supreme Court decision on Etobicoke Centre, the importance of the Conservatives' margin of victory is undeniable.

An internal document that surfaced weeks before the Conservative government fell in March 2011 gave a preview of the party’s election strategy.

'Very ethnic' target ridings from west to east

Conservative gains:

  • Vancouver South — won by Conservative MP Wai Young, beating Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh.
  • Elmwood-Transcona — won by Conservative MP Lawrence Toet, defeating New Democrat MP Jim Maloway.
  • Brampton-Springdale — won by Conservative MP Parm Gill, defeating Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla.
  • Bramalea-Gore-Malton — won by Conservative MP Bal Gosal, defeating Liberal incumbent Gurbax Malhi.
  • Eglinton-Lawrence — won by Conservative MP Joe Oliver, defeating Liberal MP Joe Volpe.
  • York Centre — won by Conservative MP Mark Adler, beating Liberal MP Ken Dryden.
  • Richmond Hill — won by Conservative MP Costas Menegakis, beating Liberal MP Bryon Wilfert.

Opposition holds:

  • Burnaby-Douglas — won by New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart, retaining seat for NDP.
  • Newton-North Delta — won by New Democrat Jinny Sims, beating Liberal MP Sukh Dahliwal.
  • Mount Royal — won by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, retaining his seat.

View our interactive map.

The strategy document set out 10 "very ethnic" ridings to be targeted. The plan was effective: nudging the vote among cultural communities helped the party take seven of the 10 ridings. The document — a presentation created by Kasra Nejatian, a staffer in Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office — said the ridings were chosen because each featured an ethnic group that made up 20 per cent or more of its population.

Targeting victory 

The Conservative Party's success in identifying and targeting vulnerable swing ridings went a long way to bringing about its 'strong, stable' majority victory in the 2011 election. Our series looks at the strategy behind its success — and what it's like to be a target.

Part 1: Success in 'very ethnic' ridings

Part 2: The 'permanent campaign' 

CBC News has learned the Conservatives ultimately targeted more than 30 ridings based on their proportion of ethnic minorities — and won two-thirds of them. The party did better in some regions than others: in Ontario, they took every riding they targeted, according to information obtained by CBC News. They had less luck in British Columbia and Quebec, where the NDP dominated.

The presentation, which came to be known by the "very ethnic" heading above one of the slides, was attached to a letter seeking donations from Alberta's Conservative riding associations to help fund the plan. The package inadvertently made its way to New Democrat MP Linda Duncan, the only opposition MP in Alberta, and the NDP eagerly shared it with reporters.

Micro-targeting not unique to Conservatives

The Conservative Party's success in targeting and winning ridings is based on three other strengths: the party's ability to fundraise, giving them as much money as spending limits allow; their success with cultural communities; and the intensity of their campaign tactics. The campaign machine is systematic, efficient and often vicious. And if it sets its full sights on an opposition-held riding, it's likely to win.

A source who worked in the Conservative war room in 2011 says micro-targeting itself isn't revolutionary.

"The idea that you target people based on their preferences, based on their habits, is not new. Every political party has been doing it for decades," the Conservative operative said.

"We're just better at it."

The extra cash — the party raised $22 million in 2011, compared with $10.1 million for the Liberals and $7.4 million for the NDP — means it can do extensive polling in the lead-up to the election, when parties can spend as much as they want. In the Conservatives' case, that meant breaking down ridings into specific ethnic groups and running the numbers to see what kind of vote swing they would need to take the seat.

In many cases, their strategy was highly effective. CBC News has examined the election files of a number of Conservative candidates, including those on the list of the 10 targeted ridings. The records in the Elections Canada files indicate strong control from party headquarters, large amounts of money spent on communications and polling, and tight, take-no-prisoners messaging.

That said, the analysis also shows it's not just about money. Of those 10 target ridings, the candidate who took the riding out-spent the other candidates in six of the races, but sometimes just barely.

'Need to have a message that resonates'

Brad Lavigne, the NDP's national campaign director in 2011, says the New Democrats have studied how the Conservatives target potential voters.

A woman walking her dog has a surprise as she encounters a campaigning Prime Minister Stephen Harper and (left to right) Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Jason Kenny and James Moore. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"The Conservative Party has been effective at narrow-casting their universe, the potential vote, and using the tools of government and the party apparatus to not only persuade but to get out the vote of those groups," Lavigne said.

The tools used for targeting are getting more precise, he added, but they're only as good as the people using them.

"In order for these tools to be effective, you need to have a message that resonates and you have to understand the targeted groups and whether or not they're going to respond well to your message," Lavigne said.

Liberal Party president Mike Crawley agrees it isn't just about spending the money to research voter preferences and intentions.

"I think you shouldn't be polling to figure out what you’re going to stand for, right? You've got to have to figure out what you're going to stand for, then poll just to find out how to best communicate that and how to best position it," he said.

Big names deliver extra cash

Deciding whether a riding is worth the focus falls to a combination of polling data, on-the-ground factors such as how the local economy is doing, and whether the incumbent and challengers are weak or strong candidates. Carefully breaking down and analyzing the numbers provides that much more certainty.

Much of the strategy for the ethnic community push came from the one cabinet minister and staff who have spent years building up the party's appeal in cultural communities. Jason Kenney was first appointed secretary of state for multiculturalism in January 2007. He transitioned to minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism on Oct. 30, 2008, and has been in that role ever since.

The Calgary MP has devoted countless hours to developing the party's relations with cultural communities and listening to their needs. That much is well known, but a look back at the strategy described in those records shows how much he and his close circle of aides worked that angle.

Kenney declined to be interviewed for this article.

The presentation distributed by Nejatian laid out the numbers: by 2017, about half the 7.1 million people in the Greater Toronto Area would be visible minorities. A full 1.3 million would be South Asian and another 900,000 would be Chinese.

Other targeted groups included Ukrainians, who make up more than 20 per cent of the population in Manitoba's Elmwood-Transcona riding, and Jews, who form more than 35 per cent of Quebec's Mount Royal and, in Toronto, 25 per cent of both Eglinton-Lawrence and York Centre. For advertising purposes, those are large but focused groups, groups that you can reach easily through advertising in the language spoken at home.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, seen with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2010, has been a key figure in the party's success with ethnic communities. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The presentation asked for $200,000 from Alberta riding associations where Conservative support is strong, and promised $125,000 that Kenney had already fundraised. It also promised another $50,000 from the riding association to devote to the "very ethnic" push in the greater Toronto and Vancouver areas, singling out specifically South Asian and Chinese communities.

Elections Canada records show how the party's stronger and safer ridings transfer extra money to help contestants who need it:

  • Kenney's riding association directed $130,000 to the Conservative Party on March 17, 2011, and another $99,177 to 17 Conservative riding associations.
  • Harper's riding association transferred $200,000 to 21 other riding associations during the 2011 election.
  • Many of the riding associations that got the cash transfers from Calgary Southeast and Calgary Southwest were on the list of 10 target ridings, long-standing Liberal ridings or ridings otherwise expected to be up for grabs.

In comparison, the riding associations of former NDP leader Jack Layton and former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff only transferred money to Layton and Ignatieff respectively, not to the campaigns of other candidates from their parties.

The numbers show the ability of the Conservative brand, brought to life through the party's leader and other high-profile MPs, to collect cash and deliver it to the most competitive ridings.

Before the next election, a federal party subsidy based on the number of votes received is being phased out, and parties will also have to contend with new riding boundaries. With all these challenges ahead, the question is whether the opposition parties can adapt to challenge of the well-oiled Conservative campaign machine.

Of course, the Liberals and New Democrats hope that's the case. The Liberals have bought a new system Crawley hopes will leapfrog them over the other parties in terms of their ability to gather information to help identify voters.

Lavigne says the New Democrats are already doing some elements of voter identification better than the Conservatives, although he admits there are other elements they do less well.

But, "without question, we're certainly playing on the same field as the Conservatives when it comes to voter targeting and narrow-casting," Lavigne says.