Why Political Parties should have Marketers run their Campaigns Part 4: The Ontario election

In 2011 I wrote a blog Political Parties should have Marketers run their Campaigns. Subsequently, I wrote two more blogs on this topic Why Political Parties should have Marketers run their Campaigns Part 2: The US election and Why Political Parties should have Marketers run their Campaigns Part 3: The British Colombia election.

First let me say, that I have no partisan interest in any political party but am writing this blog as a marketing professional and someone who writes on marketing topics which deal with public sector organizations.

This blog is about the most recent Ontario election.

Sometimes I wonder who advises political leaders in election campaigns. I advocate that political campaigns are marketing activities and should be run by marketers, not policy wonks, academics, ideologues or even public relations experts.

The most recent election in Ontario was a “brain buster” for anyone who is a marketing practitioner.  The Ontario Progressive Conservatives (PC’s) had the issues on their side, but they completely blew it, largely with a strategy that alienated voters, rather than inspire them. As one commentator suggested the Ontario PC’s campaign must have been run by a Liberal insider who was masquerading as a Conservative. CBC broadcaster and journalist Rex Murphy suggested the campaign will go down in history with other unsuccessful campaign like the Ford Edsel, New Coke and Suzanne Somers’ ThighMaster.

An election campaign is about laying out a vision and persuading voters to buy in to your argument.  Is there anyone out there who would disagree  that in this campaign, the Ontario PC’s  had all the trump cards …  a bad economy  growing deficit and debt, employment stagnation, political scandals by the Liberals and a bureaucracy which could certainly use some trimming.  In general, the concept of fiscal discipline and smaller government – was something people in Ontario could clearly identify with. But for reasons that are a complete mystery to me and anyone that knows anything about marketing the Ontario PC’s communicated a negative and austere message with uncompromising rhetoric that left a chilling impact on voters.

The plan to trim the size of the public service made sense and let’s face it no matter who won the election, cuts in the public service were going to happen, but the PC’s constant reminders of cutting of a 100 thousand jobs after they promised to create a million jobs (which we found out later was based on faulty math) made the PC’s appear cold and uncaring.

The truth is, the Ontario PC’s ran a poor campaign and got punished for it. What Ontarians rejected was a leader who railed against everything and offered a future that appeared bleak to many. Rather than selling hope he  sold fear.

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Mohammed Adam in his Citizen  column points out that another lesson the PCs might do well to learn is to stop making enemies of the unions, which are doing no more than advocating on behalf of their members. It is unclear what the PCs gain by antagonizing labour unions, whose members make up a sizable portion of the electorate. In addition many union members have families and friends who might be concerned about them potentially losing their jobs.

In the wake of their devastating defeat, Ontario PC’s complained bitterly about how the big unions campaigned against them. No question that the unions contributed to their defeat but what did they expect the unions to do after the Ontario PC’s virtually declared war on them?  PC leader Hudak spent the better part of a year demonizing unions and their leaders, vowing to cut them to size. He even proposed to kill the Rand Formula, which has sustained unions for decades, and turn Ontario into a right-to-work province. He abandoned the plan only after internal opposition. The 100,000 public service jobs they promised to cut are the jobs of union members, so it should not come as any surprise that the unions fought back.

As they contemplate the future, the PCs might do well to reflect on how they present themselves to voters. It is well and good to have a plan, but how it is received may be the difference between victory and defeat.

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