Liberals' 'supporter' experiment put to the test

The federal Liberal Party knows who its new supporters are and how to reach them, even if they don't join the party, and even if they don't vote for the new leader.

New class of voters can kick the tires, don't have to buy the car

A worker tests the microphone on the stage before the Liberal Party of Canada leadership candidate national showcase in Toronto on April 6. Supporters have until April 14 to vote for a new leader. (Mark Blinch,Reuters)

Even though only half of the federal Liberal Party’s new special "supporter class" of voters got around to registering to cast a ballot in its ongoing leadership race, the party knows who they are and how to reach them.

Whether the tryout of this new class of supporters pans out in terms of renewing the party remains to be seen. Right now, approximately 127,000 people, including regular party members, can vote in the contest for the new Liberal leader.

Supporters are people who can vote for the new Liberal leader without joining the party as permanent members and without paying a membership fee. The only thing asked of them is that they be at least 18 and not members of other political party. 

The Liberal Party's national director, Ian McKay, described supporters as "tire-kickers", and "people who have an interest in politics, who might not want to be a member, might not want to pay the 10 bucks, might not want to sign the membership form, and they responded in droves" 

Even if the new supporters don’t go on to become party members, McKay is hoping they’ll at least retweet the party’s messages, or like it on Facebook.

Liberals changed their rules

The Liberals lost so badly in the 2011 election that then-leader, Michael Ignatieff, lost his own seat and resigned. So they jettisoned their rules and changed their constitution to allow the new leader, the fourth in 10 years, to be chosen in a way that opened up the process to the public. 

It was interim Leader Bob Rae's motion, seconded by current leadership candidate Justin Trudeau, that created the supporter class. "It was a tough call because there were a lot of people in the party who said,'This is nuts,'" said John Duffy, a public policy consultant and a long-time Liberal. 

Duffy helped Rae build the concept of the supporter class, calling it "breaking out of the traditional mould of the Liberal family talking to the Liberal family."

What the creation of the supporter class means is that the Liberals have a whole new goldmine of data. 

The party now has the names, the birthdates and addresses of the new supporters, half of whom, according to McKay, have never had any involvement with the party before. 

"The great virtue of it [the supporter category] is not that it's delivered for us the right leader, it's that it's delivering for us the right campaign," said Duffy, who is a Justin Trudeau supporter.

Supporter category a model for winning

Duffy believes the supporter category is the model for winning an election. The strategy is about microtargeting very select groups of people, communicating with them digitally, and tailoring policy for them. 

It's a style the Conservatives have mastered — except for, perhaps, the digital part — but it's a technique Duffy thinks the Liberals should have been using five years ago. " And none of it is particularly mysterious. It's just a matter of rigor and discipline," he said. 

Much can be learned from the fact that Liberal voters are casting preferential ballots in this leadership, ranking their choice of candidates. The individual rankings about who comes second all the way to who comes last will say a lot about what policies they like — whether it's Martha Hall Findlay's plan to get rid of supply management or Joyce Murray's proposal for electoral reform  — and those preferences can be matched to their age and gender. 

Some of the most valuable information is how many of the new supporters are in the under-45 age demographic. "That's not just very young people, 18-25, " Duffy said, "but the pool of people who've never voted, many of them are now in their early 40s. They represent a huge backed up reservoir of potential political energy. In size terms they're actually bigger than the baby boomers."

So, whether the new class of supporters registered to vote or not, and whether they even voted or not, the Liberal party doesn't intend to let them go. 

Voting continues until 3 p.m. ET Sunday. The new leader of the Liberal Party will be announced just before 6 p.m.