THE NEW TRICKS IN AN OLD TRADE
GETTING ON TV IS THE REAL ISSUE
Media events, photo opportunities and 15-second sound bites—the jargon and techniques of the modern political campaigner—are now so specialized that they can easily bewilder the average voter. Little more than a generation ago, politics was a much simpler art. In the 1965 election, then-Opposition Leader John Diefenbaker launched the Conservative campaign by gathering together his senior advisers in Ottawa. Diefenbaker asked his aides what he should do, then answered his own question: “I want to see the people. I’m going to get on a train.” The Tory leader whistle-stopped his way across the country, visiting 196 cities, towns and villages. Recalled Thomas Van Düsen Sr., then Diefenbaker’s
executive assistant: “We had experts falling all over themselves to give advice, but Dief never paid any attention to them. Maybe he should have.” Indeed, the Conservatives lost that election to the Liberals, although they managed to hold the Grits to a minority and deny Liberal Leader Lester Pearson the majority he had demanded from the electorate.
Impact: Times have changed, and so has the political process. In 1988, no politician could even hope to become prime minister without a high-powered team of pollsters, television consultants and media handlers—and the multimillion-dollar budget to pay them. Using the latest techniques of marketing, their task is to shape voters’ perceptions of the candidate and tailor his or her message to the prevailing national mood. Acted out against a backdrop of
televised debates and sophisticated media advertising campaigns, even the leaders’ tours have been reduced to a repetitive series of tightly scripted events planned and executed for maximum impact on the nightly television news programs. “It may not be good for politics, but television is the focus of the campaign,” said Raymond Heard, a former executive with Ontario’s Global TV network who is now communications director for Liberal Leader John Turner. “What we are looking for is the 15-second clip, something that is coherent and attractive in a way that stimulates the voter to support our guy.”
Pose: Last week, as they crisscrossed the country in search of votes on Nov. 21, all three party leaders demonstrated an acute awareness of the need to play to the television cameras. Perhaps nothing underscored the concern for campaign imagery better than the fact that on the same day last week, both Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Liberal Leader John Turner took their entourages to McDonald’s hamburger outlets—Mulroney in Oakville, Ont., Turner in Vancouver—and posed in yellow aprons while selling fast food in aid of Ronald McDonald House and other charities. New Democrat Leader Edward Broadbent,
meanwhile, tried to draw attention to his party’s northern policies by staging a photo opportunity at a wood-framed day care centre in Yellowknife. Later, while Broadbent was posing for the cameras outside the facility, NDP aide Robert Mingay grabbed a reporter who was standing behind the politician and pulled him away—the journalist, he explained, was ruining the shot.
Debate: By the weekend, the three leaders had returned to Ottawa to prepare for what would almost certainly prove to be the two most important events in the campaign: the three-hour televised debates in French and English on Monday and Tuesday of this week. The stakes for all three were high, because even a minor blunder can sometimes be magnified by the power of television into a costly and
irreversible error. Turner stumbled over patronage during a televised debate in 1984. His exchange with Mulroney was replayed dozens of times in subsequent newscasts and it inflicted serious damage on the Liberals in that election. Last week, the Liberals rented a television studio in Ottawa to let Turner rehearse in mock debates, with fellow Liberals playing the parts of the other leaders.
Spin: Mulroney and Broadbent, who are generally rated as better television performers than Turner, practised their lines and delivery in question-and-answer sessions with senior aides. Like actors rehearsing for an openingnight performance, each of the leaders was determined to leave as little as possible to
chance. Their preparations included lining up so-called spin doctors—well-placed party officials who will go into action once the debates end to try to influence media assessments of the outcome, especially the key verdict of who was the winner.
The increased emphasis on controlling the images of the three party leaders leaves little room for spontaneity. Mulroney, enjoying a comfortable lead in the opinion polls, has been waging a classic front-runner’s campaign, sticking to his scripts and avoiding most impromptu encounters with voters. Broadbent’s campaign is also tightly structured, suggesting that his strategists do not want him to do or say anything that might cost the NDP support among middle-class voters.
Only Turner, whose party has slipped to
third place in several recent surveys, is running a relatively open-style campaign. Perhaps because his advisers think that he has little to lose—a recent CBC poll showed that only 10 per cent of decided voters thought that Turner would make the best prime minister, compared with 26 per cent for Broadbent and 37 per cent for Mulroney—the Liberal leader has been appearing on open-line radio programs and making speeches before nonpartisan audiences, events that are extremely difficult to predict or control.
Despite those differences in campaign style, strategists for all three parties are adept at manipulating the media. Long before the campaign began, sophisticated market research
enabled the parties to test voters’ reactions to their leaders and to a wide range of issues. Using that information, each party set about trying to satisfy the public mood with a simple, easily understood message.
Style: The Tories won the 1984 election by appealing to the public’s desire for change in the style of government after almost 16 years of Liberal rule under Pierre Trudeau. Now they are campaigning on their economic record and the prosperity that they say will result from the government’s Canada-U.S. free trade deal. Conservative strategists clearly hope that the country’s booming economy will convince voters that their party is the best qualified to manage economic change in the future. The Liberals, on the other hand, chose to campaign against the trade agreement, attempting to
align the party with a nationalist sentiment among voters and undermine confidence in Mulroney’s ability to defend Canadian interests. Although the NDP also opposes the trade deal, its campaign planners decided to emphasize “fairness,” playing down the party’s ideological differences with the Liberals and the Tories in order to appeal to as wide a crosssection of voters as possible.
Still, if past experience is a guide, the fortunes of aÛ three parties may turn on the kind of image each of their leaders projects. Indeed, an analysis of the 1984 election by Allan Frizzell and Anthony Westell of Carleton University’s school of journalism in Ottawa suggested that the Tories did well in that campaign in part
THE PARTIES CONCOCT THE IN ORDER TO GET THE ‘SOUND
because they did not put forward detailed positions on major issues. Instead, the Conservatives’ strategy appeared to have been to deflect attention away from specific policy differences between themselves and the other parties in order to avoid alienating voters. As a result, argue Frizzell and Westell, many voters appeared to turn against the Liberals in 1984 simply because they viewed Turner as a less attractive candidate than Mulroney. When the campaign began, 31 per cent of those surveyed said that Turner had the most likable personality, while only 25 per cent liked Mulroney the best. But toward the end of the campaign, Mulroney’s “likability” rating soared to 40 per cent, while Turner’s slid to 18 per cent.
Switch: In the current campaign, many political observers say that the image factor is likely to play an equally decisive role. The reason, said political scientist Walter Soderlund of the University of Windsor, is that all three parties are attempting to pursue uncommitted voters— the so-called switchers, who, by changing party allegiance from one election to the next, determine the outcome of elections. By definition, switchers do not identify with any one party and they are not strongly influenced by ideology. As a result, they g look to the leaders—or, more $ precisely, to the image of the f leaders portrayed in the mes dia—as a guide in making I their choice. Said Soderlund:
“It is a sad commentary on s the political system, because Oliver doing
public personas are what sell -
the leaders—and ultimately the parties—to the voters.”
According to experts, the dominance of television in political campaigns has exaggerated the importance of leaders’ images. The reason, they say, is that even in-depth television coverage of election campaigns leaves viewers with a superficial impression of candidates’ positions compared with political reporting in newspapers and magazines. But other observers say that the electorate itself is to blame, not the medium of television. Said political scientist Frederick J. Fletcher of Toronto’s York University: “I do not think it is reasonable to fault television for failing to deal in detail with the issues, because even when the information is presented, most people do not remember it.”
But John Meisel, former chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, has described TV as a “major factor in the so-called presidentialization of Canadian politics.” Said Meisel: “The whole political process has become a form of entertainment, a sport. I do not think you can blame anyone—it is the nature of our society that we are more concerned with appearances than substance.”
The image of candidates that is conveyed by
television does not always correspond with the impression they leave in person. Of the three party leaders, Turner is perhaps the most poorly suited for the television age. On the campaign trail, many people who have attended Turner’s speeches have afterward told reporters that they are impressed by the Liberal leader’s passionate delivery and ability to communicate deeply felt concerns about the impact of free trade on Canadian sovereignty. But the same individuals often say that Turner appears stiff and tense on television. “He comes across as a better person when you see him in the flesh,” said Kevin Kelly, 39, a truck driver who saw Turner speak in Sydney, N.S.
Indeed, even the Liberal leader’s own advisers acknowledge that Turner’s forceful deliv-
ery rarely looks good in television close-ups. “In person he is convincing because he is intense,” said an aide who is currently travelling with the Liberal leader. “Unfortunately, on the screen the same qualities make him look nervous and slightly fanatical. He has to stop playing to the crowd. These days, the only audience that counts is the television camera.” Shrill: In contrast, both Mulroney and Broadbent have learned to modify their voices and body language in an effort to appear more soothing on television. For his part, Toronto media consultant Agota Gabor said that Broadbent’s performances during Question Period in the House of Commons used to make the NDP leader seem harsh and strident. But now on the campaign trail, said Gabor, Broadbent’s “shrillness is gone and he is more relaxed. It is almost
as though he is a big, cuddly teddy bear—he is warm in a way that Turner is not.”
Flaws: Although Mulroney’s congeniality quotient is still lower than Broadbent’s in the minds of many voters, most experts say that the Prime Minister has improved his TV image since the 1984 campaign. According to Gabor, Mulroney’s deep, resonant voice sounds insincere to many Canadians. As a result, she said, “he has started to moderate his voice.” And Mulroney works continually to refine his television technique—conferring between campaign appearances with tour manager John Tory, who coaches him on delivery and points out flaws in his daily presentations. Said Patricia Adams, an independent consultant with Toronto-based Tri-Com Communications: “Mul-
roney is so damn well-packaged that you could turn him around and expect to see a list of ingredients printed on his back.”
But controlling a leader’s image is only one element in a broader effort to shape public opinion. The ability to orchestrate events to produce attractive visual backdrops for the nightly news—campaign tacticians call it creating a “process event”—is equally important. To underscore the Conservative message that free trade will bring prosperity, for instance, Mulroney toured the Georgian College of Applied Arts in Barrie, Ont., last week where students were studying automotive marketing. With his wife, Mila, by his side, Mulroney wandered past displays of high-tech machinery and then sat in earnest conversation with a handful of selected students. Later, during a lunchtime address to the local chamber of commerce, Mulroney delivered a verbal pitch to accompany the morning’s pictures: the Canadian automotive industry, he said,
“knows that it can compete under free trade.”
Key: The Liberal and NDP campaigns are also structured with the demands of television image-making in mind. NDP deputy campaign director Robin Sears, for one, described effective television, not a party’s platform, as “overwhelmingly” the key to success in the campaign. To that end, during a typical day on the hustings, Broadbent rarely meets many of the ordinary Canadians who appear in the party’s television ads. Almost all of the NDP leader’s events are set-piece speeches before partisan crowds, or press conferences strictly for the news media. “I make no apology for that,” said Julie Mason, the party’s media campaign director. “In the old days, a politician stood at the back of a train and delivered his speech. Now we go right into people’s living rooms.”
To some extent, television has even rendered large campaign rallies unneccessary. Said Turner aide Patrick Gossage: “It used to be that the aim was to draw 1,000 people out to hear the candidate. Now the crowds are almost incidental, except as props for television.”
As indispensible to the modern campaigns as the process event is the so-called sound bite—a succinct, pithy message that encapsulates the candidate’s views on a particular subject in 15 or 20 seconds. For the Liberals, Senator Michael Kirby chairs an early morning strategy session at the party’s Ottawa headquarters that, among other things, is responsible for concocting the “line” that Turner will use later in the day. The day’s line is transmitted electronically to a terminal in Turner’s
campaign aircraft, where aides study it and suggest possible alternatives.
So far, one of the most successful creations of the Liberals’ sound-bite sessions was Turner’s taunt that Mulroney should “come out of his cage and meet the Canadian people”—a swipe at the Tory leader’s tightly scripted campaign. “The lines are crucial,”
said Heard, Turner’s communications director. “With a lot of voters, the only thing they know about the campaign is what they get from that 15-second clip.”
Snap: For their part, many television journalists insist that they are not overly influenced
by campaign planners’ attempts to manipulate news coverage. But often the visual images supplied by the parties—not to mention the snappy sound bites—are hard to pass up. CTV Ottawa bureau chief Craig Oliver, for one, said that the Prime Minister’s tour reminds him of
Ronald Reagan’s successful 1984 re-election campaign, which combined sentimental images of small-town life with the slogan, “Morning in America.” Said Oliver: “Reagan’s campaign was thematic rather than specific. You can see the same thing in Mulroney’s campaign—the message is unfailingly upbeat and optimistic. They give you pictures that they know the networks will find irresistible.”
Tool: In the future, analysts say, the art of political packaging will likely become even more specialized and sophisticated. The latest tool, which is currently being used by campaign tacticians in the U.S. presidential election, is a hand-held “approval meter.” Such instruments are distributed to audience members before a speech or debate, enabling them to register their feelings by turning an electronic arrow to the left when they approve of something the candidate has said, and to the right when they disapprove. The politician’s advisers can plot audience reaction on a minute-by-minute basis. And in a development that verges on the bizarre, g some experts have predicted Í that by the 1992 presidential z campaign, and even the next i Canadian election, the technique will be refined to the point of having electrodes monitor the pulse of individthey listen to a candidate
To some political junkies, that may seem like a laudable application of scientific methods to the democratic process. But critics of those techniques say that as political campaigning becomes increasingly sophisticated, the parties and politicians begin to sound even more alike and the voters’ choice on election day becomes ever more illusory. They argue that political leaders will be selected primarily for their skills as television performers, rather than for their vision, integrity and intellect. Said one Liberal strategist: “It is not really a serious political process anymore. In that kind of debate, the best person to be prime minister is Johnny Carson. He can deliver the best oneliners.” Added York’s Fletcher: “The moment a campaign becomes solely an exercise in political marketing, debate about the future of the country drops right out of the process.” As undesirable as that trend seems, there may come a time when the idea of personal contact between politicians and voter seems as quaint as the whistle-stop tour.