COLUMN

Losing with conventional wisdom

Charles Gordon May 27 1985
COLUMN

Losing with conventional wisdom

Charles Gordon May 27 1985

Losing with conventional wisdom

COLUMN

Charles Gordon

Here comes a big bus. Look, it has someone’s name on it in big letters. Now it’s stopping and a guy in a blue suit is getting out. He’s waving at somebody. Now dozens of other people are getting out, carrying cameras, microphones, notebooks and tape recorders. Look, they’re all crowding around the guy in the blue suit. He’s saying something. Whoops, they’re all getting back on the bus. Now the man in the blue suit is waving again. There goes the bus. How long were they here, a minute or so? What happened?

You know already. It’s the ritual of political campaigning in the 1980s. The leader carries a crowd of reporters and TV technicians around with him on a bus. When it stops, they all get out and the leader poses against an appropriate background—a farm, a factory. He delivers a prepared statement about farms or factories. Then they board the bus again and drive off to the next place.

Nothing has happened on the plane or bus to cause the leader to feel strongly about a factory or a farm. His exposure to the real world is limited. Every day he sees the faces of the same reporters and cameramen. He sees the inside of the bus and the plane. He sees the occasional hotel ballroom, filled with his supporters. Nothing in his day-to-day experience, no particular impulse, has caused him to make his statement. Weeks ago his handlers typed in that farm or that factory on an itinerary. Nothing that happens there will influence what he says at the next farm or factory. He has shaken hands with a carefully selected farmer or factory worker. If the leader is in opposition he has made his statement about the plight of the farmer or the factory worker. If he is in government he has spoken, with no small pride, about the fine things he has done for farmers or factory workers. Let him deviate from the script at all and his handlers will speak to him about it.

As you watch the bus pull away, you wonder what is happening on it. Perhaps, you think, the leader is elaborating on the statement he just made. Perhaps on that very bus the essential process of political dialogue is going on: the leader is explaining his positions to the reporters so that the reporters can explain them to the people and the people can judge them intelligently on election day.

But is that what’s really going on? Not

exactly. The leader is not talking to the reporters. He is not allowed to talk to them for fear that he might say something that isn’t in the script or come out in favor of a policy that hasn’t been pretested by the party pollsters. Instead, the leader is sitting with his handlers, separated from the reporters by a curtain. He is preparing the statement he will make at the next stop—a shoe store. The reporters are at the back of the bus, singing. They don’t have any work to do, having already written their stories about farm and factory statements. The shoe store statement is the same as last week’s shoe store statement in another town.

As you watch the bus pull away, you pull out the political philosophy textbook you always carry in your back pocket. You’ve had an oversized pocket sewn onto your pants just for this purpose. The textbook tells you that one of the purposes of elections is to educate

The leader is not allowed to talk to the reporters. He might support a policy that hasn't been pretested.

the voters, give the parties a chance to stimulate discussion on important issues and give the voters a chance to respond and make up their minds as to the directions they want their province or nation to take. The leader and his handlers don’t have the textbook, just three-ring binders full of public opinion polls. The leader is getting off his bus and saying as little as possible, then getting back on. He isn’t giving any interviews, he isn’t meeting with any real people. He is wearing a cloak of invisibility.

Why is a man who is in the business of being known to and beloved by all seeking invisibility? The answer is in the three-ring binders. The polls tell him he’s ahead. What he has to do now, his handlers advise him, is to keep a low profile, avoid saying anything that might cause controversy. His handlers have studied the American presidential campaigns of 1980 and 1984. They watched Joe Clark win in 1979 and Pierre Trudeau regain power in 1980. They know how those elections were won: take an early lead in the polls and sit on it. Don’t say anything, don’t make

any mistakes. If the press complains, don’t worry. How many legions does the press have?

This has been the philosophy of political smart guys for a decade or so. The philosophy rests on two pillars of thought. The first is that the polls can be trusted. The second is that political campaigns don’t change anything. The voter’s mind is made up early and it doesn’t much matter what the party leaders do during the seven or eight weeks they’re on the hustings.

If the smart guys had been right, John Turner and the Liberals would have won the 1984 federal election. A Gallup poll taken while he was making up his mind to call the election gave them an 11point lead—49 per cent to 38—over the PCs. Forty-nine per cent of the vote is enough for a majority of the seats in the House of Commons.

Fifty per cent is even better, 50 per cent being the percentage won by Brian Mulroney and the Conservatives. In a political campaign that wasn’t supposed to change anything, the Conservatives increased their popular support by 12 points and the Liberals lost 20.

Less than a year later the Ontario Conservatives under Frank Miller took the conventional wisdom and some favorable polls out onto the hustings. When the campaign began, Miller led by 22 points over the Liberals, 51 per cent to 29. Miller hid. He ran a carefully controlled campaign and refused to debate the Liberal and NDP leaders on television. When the votes were counted Miller and the Conservatives had 37 per cent of the votes, David Peterson and the Liberals had 38. The Liberals had gained nine points and the Conservatives had lost 14 in a campaign that wasn’t supposed to change anything.

Since then, the smart guys have been at the conventional wisdom store, looking to trade the old version in on something a bit more up-to-date. The new model, it turns out, is not too much different from what we used to have, back in the days when political leaders met people and gave interviews to reporters, back in the days before polling was an exact science. Now the politicians have to grapple with some new thoughts. Campaigns matter. Polls can change. The next time the big bus stops, the man in the blue suit may get out and talk to you. He might even listen. He knows now: you can run but you can’t hide.

Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.