Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes

Over the last few nights, I devoured Susan Delacourt’s well-written and thoughtful history of political marketing in Canadian federal politics. The title makes the important point that marketing ideas have now moved into the political realm through election campaigning and the communications function of government.

Delacourt traces the history of political marketing back to the Fifties and follows its evolution to the current day. She puts particular emphasis on the importance of polling and data analysis that divides the population into sociodemographic groups and then locates members of those groups on a constituency-by-constituency basis. This leads parties to design their campaigns, in particular party platforms, to secure the votes of enough members of their target groups that they win the election. The Harper Government represents the state of the art in this practice, with its use of its Constituency Management Information System to gather information about voters, its narrowly focused policies targeted at the marginal voters who are close to its core, and its permanent election campaign, highlighted by attack ads. The Conservatives have recognized that their path to power depends on winning the votes of the Dougies and Ricks-and-Brendas, not the Marcuses-and-Fionas or the Zoes. Delacourt also shows how the NDP benefited in the 2011 election by emulating the Conservative approach and the Liberals were decimated by ignoring it.

Delacourt’s analysis is spot-on for policy, because policies can be designed and precisely targeted to groups of marginal voters. It is questionable, however, whether it is equally relevant to the other component of the political product, the party leader. Party leaders are unlike policies because they are constantly visible to the entire polity, and cannot convincingly present themselves as entirely different people to different audiences. The implication of the political marketing approach for the party leader is that she should focus on her main target group, and then make herself as acceptable as possible to that market. In essence, the leader becomes a follower. Thus we have Stephen Harper projecting an image of hockey dad and writing a book about hockey history because it will appeal to the Dougies and Ricks-and-Brendas. Delacourt also notes that Jack Layton appealed to francophone Quebecois when he was able to come across as “le bon Jack,” a good guy, a regular guy.

This approach to leadership also includes attack ads aimed at leaders of opposing parties. The Conservatives’ successful attacks on Dion and Ignatieff combined negative stereotypes for their occupation – professors – with, particularly in Ignatieff’s case, a strong anti-elitist trope.

The approach to leadership developed by Harper’s marketers hides his considerable intelligence as much as possible to portray him as a regular guy with the regular interests of his constituency. Rob Ford has taken this “regular guy” approach even farther, projecting an image of the leader as regular boor and borderline perp.

It seems to me that, whether supporters or critics, voters want something different in a political leader. We want vision, the ability to articulate it, and the strength of will to achieve it. Rather than a mere reflection of ourselves, we are looking for someone who is exceptional in some way. Obama, Thatcher, Reagan, JFK, Trudeau – even Arnold Schwarzenegger – all present a more compelling vision of leadership than the political marketer’s. I don’t think the political marketers have thought as deeply about political leadership as they have about sociodemographic polling or boutique policies.

The book stimulated personal reflections in two areas. Like Michelle Kofman, who complained to the National Post (p. 279), I too received Jewish New Year greetings from Stephen Harper. The irony of this is that my grandparents and parents, in response to the anti-Semitism of the first half of the twentieth century, changed their surname from Borinsky to Borins. Nevertheless, the Conservatives’ political marketers found us and targeted us.

Delacourt writes at length about the legendary Liberal advertising writer Terry O’Malley. I haven’t seen him for decades but I remember him warmly. When I applied to Harvard College in 1966, O’Malley was the alum who interviewed me. We hit it off very well, had a great interview, and I’m sure his evaluation contributed significantly to my being accepted. So he played a life-changing role for me, which I’ve always appreciated.

My congratulations to Susan Delacourt for her thoughtful and thought-provoking book.


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