Lessons learned from successful political campaigns


A number of people from the Black community ran in the recent round of municipal elections in this region. Relatively few were voted all the way into the winner’s circle, so in order to ensure that those who are so inclined have a better chance next time, it is instructive to pay attention to the winning formula.

Ever since Barack Obama’s historic win in the United States, the new winning formula has been keenly studied and imitated. Aspects of that winning formula is how Naheed Nenshi was able to come from third place in the Calgary mayoral race to make history as that city’s first Muslim mayor. He’s also a person of colour.

One of the most important features in winning an election, and lesson one, is to assemble a strong and capable campaign team. You have to get the best onside. That is why an unlikely character such as a Rob Ford, with all his glaring character weaknesses and questionable capabilities for heading the municipal council of the largest city in Canada, has been able to triumph over reason.

During his victory speech on Monday night, perhaps the most emotion he showed was in thanking his campaign team. We know Ford won the election, but it was his team that made it happen for him, voters notwithstanding.

Lesson number two is to find a message that resonates with the times and stick to it ad nauseum. People lead busy lives and don’t have much time to engage in deep thinking about government management of the complex issues that really should greatly concern voters. Keep your message simple and unchanging. By now everyone knows the mantra that Ford uttered about ‘stopping the gravy train’. With Obama it was ‘Yes, we can’. In contrast Smitherman, who should have known better given the level to which he had risen in politics, had no similar strategy.

A new emerging strategy that has taken hold in the U.S. – especially among the novelty candidates in these times of the Tea Partyers – is to not take any tough questions from media types who do not appear to be biased in your favour. So if you want to protect whatever image you and your team manufacture, at some point in your campaign you will have to avoid talking to the media. This should usually happen late in the campaign when the image you have successfully communicated to the voting public is set.

Lesson three has to do with fundraising. The following strategy is what worked for the Obama campaign and is being replicated by other election winners. That is, build your war chest $5 at a time. The strategy is to get people to donate small, doable amounts of money to the campaign. As one strategist explained, that small amount makes it possible for many people to finance your campaign while making them feel that they have some ownership of it. Thus, they feel invested in voting where their money went.

Lesson four: Get into new media. You have got to accept the fact that you need to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube your way into the lives of your electorate, especially to foster a relationship with the up and coming young electorate. It worked for Obama and it worked for Mayor Naheed Nenshi in Calgary.

Finally, lesson five is to build up your reputation before you even get into any political race. You have to have a profile before you go for the votes. So start by being a lawyer or journalist (See Obama or Pierre Trudeau). Or, even more important, become active in community building. Join community-building groups and become a known voice. Make sure that you are in touch with news media at that time in your efforts to build your reputation. Become the go-to person on some issue so that you can start to build your name recognition.

With this game plan the best and worst among us who desire to can find his or her way to an elected political post.

A note on the numbers…

More than half the people who voted in Toronto’s municipal elections did not cast their vote for Mayor-elect Rob Ford. Some 51 per cent of Toronto’s 1.5 million eligible voters went to the polls on Monday. Of that number, just over 427,000 voted for George Smitherman, Joe Pantalone and 37 other mayoral candidates. Even Rocco Rossi and Sarah Thompson, frontrunners who had both withdrawn from the race, received votes. Of the 51 per cent who voted, Ford received 47 per cent, or just over 383,000, of their votes.




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