THE DISCIPLINED TORY CAMPAIGN MACHINE FACES NEW CHALLENGES FROM A REVIVED LIBERAL PARTY
ROSS LAVER,HILARY MACKENZIENovember71988
PLAYING TO WIN
THE DISCIPLINED TORY CAMPAIGN MACHINE FACES NEW CHALLENGES FROM A REVIVED LIBERAL PARTY
The next federal election was almost two years away, but there was already a sense of urgency among the 60 senior Conservatives who gathered in the banquet hall of Ottawa's Château Laurier Hotel. Demoralized by the party’s third-place standing in the public opinion polls, the Tories watched attentively while Senator Norman Atkins used a slide projector to map out details of the party’s bid for a second term. From that low-key beginning in December, 1986, Atkins assembled the organization that now forms the core of the Tory campaign machine—an efficient, highly disciplined operation that is the envy of both the Liberals and the New Democratic Party. Said Senator Alasdair Graham, Liberal campaign co-chairman: “There is certainly a lot of muscle in the Tory organization.” Added NDP organizer Robin Sears: “I would give the Tories high marks for their technological resources and the scale of their enterprise. There is nothing we can do about that—they are rich and we are not.”
Clearly, the Tories do have a financial advantage over their opponents: they plan to spend up to the legal limit of $8 million during the 51day campaign, compared with about $6.5 million for the Liberals and $6 million for the NDP. And the party’s successful fund-raising operation is only one component of the Tories’ campaign machine. They also have some of the best political organizers in Canada, daily private polls to keep track of the latest shifts in national mood and a computer-assisted direct mail program that enables the party to target undecided voters in up to 30 swing constituencies. In the wake of last week’s two televised leaders’ debates—widely seen to have boosted Liberal Leader John Turner’s campaign—even the Tories acknowledged that their state-ofthe-art organization may not be enough to guarantee another majority government for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (page 14). But few doubt that it has given the party an important edge over its two rivals. “As much as anything else, the Tories are disciplined,” said George Perlin, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “They know how to commit themselves to a plan and then follow it through.”
Indeed, the Tories insisted last week that Turner’s combative performance in the debates would not divert them from running on the government’s strong economic record. Declared Maijory LeBreton, the Tory campaign’s executive director: “Our party is always nervous, but when you go through rougher waters, a good organization can carry you.” The Tories were also testing an aggressive new series of radio and TV ads to counter the opposition’s stepped-up attacks on the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement. One approach now being considered is to spotlight the current Tory front-bench team, contrasting it by implication with the possible composition of a future Liberal cabinet. Said Atkins, the party’s campaign chairman: “We think we have a strong cabinet. The best the Liberals can do is to talk about reintroducing defeated Liberal ministers.”
According to some Tories, Atkins himself is one of the Mulroney machine’s greatest assets. The stocky, 54-year-old senator has labored for the party through 36 federal and provincial elections, starting with the successful 1952 Tory campaign in New Brunswick. In 1971, he took over as senior personal adviser to Ontario Premier William Davis, constructing a daunting political organization that became known as the Big Blue Machine because of its systematic approach to planning and running a campaign. Led by a small group of professional organizers and consultants, the machine combined moderate political policies with intensive polling and the latest techniques of mass marketing.
Despite Mulroney’s Quebec roots, one of his first acts after capturing the Tory leadership in 1983 was to sign up Atkins for the federal party. At first, some longtime Mulroney supporters resented Atkins’s presence at Tory headquarters in Ottawa, regarding him as a technocrat who lacked an innate understanding of Quebec. But the party’s resounding victory in the 1984 general election won Atkins the respect of Mulroney’s loyalists—although not necessarily their affection. Insiders say that although relations between Mulroney and Atkins are cordial, the two men are not close friends. Said one senior Tory: “There is no personal rapport between them.”
Like Atkins, most of the other key players in the Tory machine are veterans of previous federal and Ontario campaigns. They include operations director Harry Near, advertising director Thomas Scott, tour manager John Tory and pollster Allan Gregg, president of Toronto-based Decima Research Ltd. In addition, platform director Senator Lowell Murray was chairman of the Tory campaign in the 1979 election, while LeBreton has worked on federal campaigns since being hired by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1962. Said Perlin: “The continuity of personnel in the Tory organization is very important. It gives them a lot of depth.”
By contrast, Turner is surrounded for the most part by enthusiastic but relatively inexperienced players. Graham, 59, is by far the most seasoned strategist, having been involved in federal and provincial campaigns since 1958. But two other key advisers—campaign manager John Webster, 31, and tour director Douglas Kirkpatrick, 33—have no previous federal experience. Both men worked on Ontario Premier David Peterson’s successful 1987 campaign. Said Graham: “In the 1970s, we took an awful lot of things for granted because everything was built around [Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau. When he left in 1984 we had to rebuild from the ground up, and until recently we suffered the consequences.” The NDP team, meanwhile, includes such veterans as campaign director William Knight, a Saskatchewan MP from 1971 to 1974, and deputy director Robin Sears, a former NDP federal secretary.
Over the past two years, the Tories have fine-tuned their 1984 campaign machinery. Said Near: “We have learned from our mistakes, particularly on the technological side. The electronic mail system and the use of facsimile machines are better.” By March, 1987, Atkins had assigned organizers in each province to oversee the leader’s tour, policy formulation, communications and fund-raising. From then on, he and about 10 other key strategists—including Near, LeBreton and party president William Jarvis—met weekly in Ottawa to review their efforts. Said Near: “Running a campaign is like piloting a big ocean liner. It takes time just to get it moving in the right direction.”
Perhaps the most important stage in the Tory preparations was the development of the campaign theme. Polls by Decima in late 1987 and early 1988 showed that, in contrast to 1984, most Canadians were not overly worried about unemployment and the state of the economy. But Gregg said that his research revealed a widespread perception among voters that Canada would have to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances, including technological advances and increased competition for world trade.
Gregg and Atkins decided to capitalize on that concern by portraying the Tories as the party best able to manage economic change in the future. Said Gregg, who tested the approach with so-called focus groups of voters last February: “The idea of ‘managing change’ struck a reasonable and credible chord with the public. It allowed us to play to our strengths.” On the campaign trail, Mulroney repeatedly emphasizes that message. Visiting a factory in Georgetown, Ont., at the start of his campaign on Oct. 3, he told workers that supporters of the free trade agreement shared “a vision about Canada’s future as opposed to some nostalgic vision of the past.” He added that the choice on Nov. 21 will be between “managing change to our advantage or retreating into a past that never was.”
Privately, senior Tories acknowledge that the party’s biggest hurdle heading into the campaign was Mulroney’s low personal approval rating, especially on the key issues of trust and credibility.
As a result, the party’s strategists decided not to issue a long list of promises during the campaign. As one senior adviser put it, “The problem is that a lot of voters do not necessarily believe every word that the Prime Minister says, so the impact of his promises might be negligible.” Instead, Murray convinced Mulroney to announce a series of new government spending programs during the months leading up to the election. In all, Ottawa poured an estimated $8 billion into new projects. Said another strategist: “The great advantage of being in government is that the Prime Minister can say, ‘This is what we will do. It is funded and I am pressing the button.’ ”
During the campaign, the party has tried to deflect criticism about Mulroney’s credibility by emphasizing instead the government’s record. The Prime Minister’s handlers repeatedly caution him to keep to the texts of his speeches and avoid off-the-cuff remarks and unscripted encounters with the media. A former Tory MP, who now works for the party in Toronto, told Maclean ’s that Mulroney has consciously followed the carefully controlled approach used by Davis in his successful 1981 Ontario reelection campaign. “Davis gave Mulroney advice on how to get re-elected as far back as 1986,” he added. “Davis’s style was no flash, no glitz, just competence—reflective of what voters in Ontario wanted.”
Another technique borrowed from Davis’s 1981 campaign, and first used by the federal party in 1984, involves the use of detailed polling at the local level to track voters in swing ridings. According to LeBreton, the party has selected up to 30 bellwether constituencies nationwide that tend to be won or lost by a margin of less than two per cent of the votes cast. Using census data from Statistics Canada, the party targets voters in those communities that strategists think are likely to respond favorably to the Tory message and sends them personalized, computer-written letters bearing Mulroney’s signature.
Still, even the Tories’ superior organizational skills do not protect them from unforeseen problems. Last week, many Tories were privately fretting about campaign co-chairman Senator Michel Cogger’s role in a controversial legal battle involving a Montreal real estate developer, Guy Montpetit, and a Japanese investor, Takayuki Tsuru. Documents filed by Tsuru in a Montreal court alleged that Cogger had received $114,000 in “questionable” payments from Montpetit. Cogger said that he had done nothing improper, adding that the money was paid to him in return for legal work he performed for Montpetit. Even so, one close adviser to the Prime Minister acknowledged that the case could hurt the Tory campaign. Meanwhile, the Tory organization has established a model that the other parties will likely follow in federal elections of future years.
ROSS LAVER and HILARY MACKENZIE with MARC CLARK in Ottawa and THERESA TEDESCO on the Mulroney tour
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