Federal NDP chases younger voters by making Singh the online face of the party

The NDP is pursuing a digital strategy to reach younger voters that relies more on the personality and people skills of leader Jagmeet Singh than on granular discussions of party policy.

New Democrats are targeting voters between the ages of 18 to 40

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh adjusts his webcam before a news conference on March 29 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Last month, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet took part in a split-screen Instagram livestream with blogger Sarah Nicole Landry, known by the handle @thebirdspapaya to her 1.9 million followers.

You won't find much talk of Canadian politics in Landry's posts, if any. They tend to focus instead on motherhood, empowerment and health.

Singh stuck to much the same themes in his talk with Landry, which focused on her ideas and struggles through the pandemic — placing Singh, who has over 600,000 Instagram followers, in the role of empathetic listener.

The conversation typified the NDP's digital strategy to reach Canadians between the ages of 18 to 40 — a strategy that puts Singh's personality and personal brand ahead of granular policy debates.

Through social media influencers, the party wants to bypass traditional forms of advertising to project Singh's image to an audience that's hard to reach through conventional political messaging.

WATCH: NDP turns to influencers

Singh appears to be working to become a pervasive presence on digital platforms like TikTok and Clubhouse in the coming months. He recently put out an online call for Canadians to text him on the Community social media platform.

The party is also planning to place ads in video games and wrap buses with colourful ads featuring Singh front and centre.

"It's really taking a look at where people are spending a lot of their time and using that as a motivation for where we are spending money, so people get to know who Jagmeet is," said Mélanie Richer, Singh's director of communications.

Building Singh's brand

The party is making big plans to build Singh's brand. It's preparing to spend nearly $12 million just on ads for the next campaign — roughly what the NDP spent for its entire campaign in the 2019 election. 

The NDP is launching a new series of ads today, starting with one airing during tonight's game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators.

The ads are unconventional by Canadian party standards. Singh himself doesn't say a word in them. 

WATCH: Using untraditional ways to reach young voters

Instead, the ads use text and images to tell a story about the party fighting for working people during the pandemic. They're aimed at those who might feel disenchanted by the results of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise of a new kind of politics.

The NDP has a separate social media strategy for Quebec. Singh did his first Instagram live in French two weeks ago while cooking a Punjabi poutine.

The challenge for the NDP is in translating digital likes into votes — especially since it's focusing on an age group that historically tends not to cast ballots in large numbers.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh takes photos with university students in Toronto on Oct. 8, 2019. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Campaign insiders argue the NDP is playing a long game.

"Rather than trying to chase votes directly from younger people, we only need to find a small subset of hyper-engaged young people," said Zain Velji, a former campaign manager for Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and former digital director for Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

"Give them disproportionate access, disproportionate skin in the game, perhaps even disproportionate titles on the campaign so that they can be the standard bearers to their social network."

WATCH: Singh's version of a viral rendition of Fleetwood Mac's 'Dreams'

Velji said the NDP needs an approach to campaign advertising that will keep it from becoming mere noise on social media. He said the party needs to find a way to keep Singh's brand and message fresh so it continues to echo through social media influencers — giving a $12 million campaign $50 million worth of reach.

Will the strategy pay off?

The party needs this strategy to work if it's to make significant gains in the next federal election.

The NDP is trailing the Liberals in the 18 to 34 age group by six points, said CBC polling analyst Eric Grenier —but those voters still represent opportunity for New Democrats.

"Those voters might ... be the ones who are most likely to be disillusioned by the Liberals, that they're not as progressive as maybe Justin Trudeau might have said he was back in 2015," he said.

"Getting younger voters to the polls in big numbers — and if they vote for the NDP — would help them a lot, particularly in a lot of urban ridings where the NDP was shut out in the last election."

WATCH: Singh says young people will make history in the next election

NDP leader speaks on day one of party policy convention

3 years ago
Duration 1:09
Leader Jagmeet Singh says he thinks young people will make history in the next federal election.

Singh told reporters on Friday he believes young people are going to make history in the next election because they're at the forefront of so many social justice movements, from the fight against climate change to Black Lives Matter.

"I love the idea of young people asking their parents and their grandparents to say, 'Hey, we need help. New Democrats are the ones offering this help for us to make our future better. Please lend us your votes so that we can bring in the changes that we need to help us out,'" Singh said.

"Young people can influence people around them and I'm excited for what's going to happen."

Singh will rally the NDP base with a keynote speech Sunday to wrap up a three-day virtual policy convention.

Today, British Columbia Premier John Horgan — the only NDP leader who currently heads a government — and veteran Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath are addressing the convention.

The 2,000-plus delegates assembled virtually around the country today are debating resolutions on social security, green programs and issues of human rights and discrimination.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press

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