Robocalling and the art of finding voters

Identifying potential supporters – particularly through telephone trolling – has come to play an increasingly significant role in Canadian politics, party strategists say.
Canadian political parties have increasingly turned to voter identification to determine potential supporters before they cast their ballots. (Nathan Rochford/Canadian Press)

When Liberal incumbent David McGuinty arrived at the Norquay home while campaigning in Ottawa South during  last spring's federal election, he probably had a feeling he wouldn't find much support there.

After all, there was a big Conservative sign out front. But McGuinty went up to the door anyway and asked if there was anyone in the home who might be interested in voting another way.

'You can gain a significant amount of information from polling.'—Geoff Norquay

Susan Norquay told the campaigning candidate: "Well, actually, Mr. McGuinty, my husband's name is Geoff, and I think you probably know him."

Geoff Norquay is, among other things, a former director of research for the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and has held senior roles for two high-profile Conservatives: Brian Mulroney when he was prime minister and Stephen Harper when he was Opposition leader.

McGuinty (the brother of the Ontario premier), quickly realized that his electoral efforts might better be spent elsewhere and cheerily headed off to find some other voters.

Geoff Norquay, Earnscliffe Strategy Group. (Earnscliffe Strategy Group website)

That front-door encounter, however, gave McGuinty one of the most basic opportunities possible to identify — or rule out — potential supporters. And that is something that Norquay says has become increasingly significant in today's politics, which the recent and raging controversy over robocalls has only highlighted.

"I think parties take voter identification much more seriously" these days, says Norquay, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa who has been involved in the political sphere for three decades.

"Voter identification research, i.e. polling, [or] telephone polls is certainly much more utilized now that it was 25, 30 years ago," he says. "You can gain a significant amount of information from polling."

Then, once you have that information, that is where the infamous robocalls come. "The targeting of messages is much more effectively delivered through [automated] demon dialing," he says, "because you can create a set of messages that appeal to various demographics and then link that up with geography."

'Nascent art'

In his 2007 book Harper's Team, Tom Flanagan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former campaign manager, called direct voter contact the party's "most valuable player" in the 2004 federal election, in which the party gained 21 seats and began to make serious inroads on its way to power.

But despite its increasing importance, Norquay considers that voter identification is still a "nascent art" in Canadian politics, and one that varies considerably from riding to riding.

Still, no matter how sophisticated, or unsophisticated, any candidate's approach to voter identification may be, it all starts with some very basic information: the Elections Canada voters' lists, and results from previous elections.

The Canada Elections Act requires that Elections Canada annually give political parties lists of electors for all ridings where they fielded candidates in the most recent election.

After an election is called, and revisions to the voters' lists are made, parties are also provided with updated lists. Unlike the hefty paper lists of years gone by, the information now comes on disc.

"It can only be used for electoral purposes, for communicating with electors," says Elections Canada spokesperson John Enright. But the disc also contains only very basic information — names and addresses, there are no telephone numbers.

"Elections Canada does not even have the telephone numbers of electors," Enright says. "We wouldn't be able to call you if we wanted to because we don't have your number or email addresses or any other information."

Looking back

In a party war room, that Elections Canada information is combined with other data that parties gather, beginning with a "solid analysis of where the votes were last time," Norquay says.

"You go back to the Elections Canada data from the last election, where you will find poll by poll results and that really is the basement starting point for gathering data."

Campaigns can track areas in a riding where they lost badly last time (and maybe give that neighbourhood a pass this time out if they are strapped for resources); or they can perhaps discover others where they were quite competitive and decide that is where they want to put more of their energies. 

Campaigns can also refer to whatever voter identification data was gathered from the previous election and, in fact, go to great lengths now to computerize this data and cross-reference it with whatever else is relevant.

"In a series of minorities, which we've just been through, when you're having elections every 18 to 24 months, your data will be that much fresher," says Norquay.

Parties then build on the data with information gathered through door-to-door canvassing, phone calls and phone polling, as well as information about party donations.

Phone polling, which is tailored to a particular riding, and possibly demographic, can be expensive but is often very significant. 

"That provides more specific information because it can be twinned with the eliciting of information about demographics, age, sex, income and issues of interest," says Norquay.

Levels of sophistication

How that information is used depends on the sophistication of the campaign.

Liberal MP David McGuinty. Does he know whose hand he is shaking? (Canadian Press)

Generally, the data is broken down into basic demographic groups and then party organizers try to match up these groups with whatever they feel to be their motivating issues.

For the 905 region suburbs surrounding Toronto, maybe it is a message about crime and victims. In Cape Breton, maybe it is a message about regional development and what an opponent has or hasn't said about a particular project. 

Then candidates and their teams try to emphasize those issues as they reach out to voters, whether at the door, in a flyer or through an automated call or local radio commercial.

Given all that research, just how much information on a potential voter might a candidate have by the time he or she gets to the door?

Norquay says it depends. He looks to his home riding as an example.

"An NDPer in my riding of Ottawa South, where the NDP has never, ever won and probably never ever will win, is probably going to have not that much voter ID.

"David McGuinty's probably got the most because he's been an MP for five elections, and he should know where most of his votes are.

"A Conservatives running in my riding, where if we ever won, I can't remember, not in my lifetime, probably not so much, but we work hard. We're working on it and someday we'll get them."

Heat of the campaign

Voter ID becomes particularly significant in the heat of a campaign, Norquay says, when trends in voter preference can be used to convince the central party that a local campaign is deserving of more resources and attention — maybe even a visit from the party leader.

In the end, though, much of the effectiveness of voter ID comes down to something that dictates so much else in life: money.

"Obviously the internet age is bringing some significant change to this," says Norquay. "The Canadian political system is really relatively unsophisticated in gathering and keeping this information. It's pretty expensive to do."