Friday, September 12, 2014

Greater Sudbury Election Notes, Part 7: Candidates & Voters, Making Connections

With a record number of candidates seeking positions on our municipal Council, it’s going to be very difficult for voters to find out information regarding whom to cast their ballots for. In the past, our mainstream media used to play the role as the primary source of voter information, but over the last decade, the mainstream media has found itself backing out of covering local issues, due to the changing nature of media with the rise of online and social media, and the scaling back of traditional media use. Simply put, fewer people are reading newspapers, watching television and listening to the radio. If you’re reading my blog, there’s a good chance that your own “go to” media source is probably found online – which has become problematic for a mainstream media without a good financial model for capitalizing on this trend.

Younger voters in particular are increasingly turning away from mainstream media. With fewer people watching TV, listening to radio, or buying newspapers, our local media really has begun to scale back. With limited resources, local coverage is often the first to go, creating a vicious cycle.

So, what’s a voting public, hungry for information, to do?

Name Recognition

Studies have shown that name recognition is one of the biggest factors which voters use in determining whom to vote for. At the federal and provincial levels, party affiliation often takes the place of name recognition – people cast their ballots for a particular party, or maybe based on the leader of a party. The pull of local candidates often isn’t significant for voters, unless the local candidates themselves are recognizable in their communities.

At the local level, however, in absence of political parties publicly lending their names and logos to affiliated candidates, getting one’s name out to the public can be challenging. Candidates who are already recognizable to a segment of the public therefore start with huge advantages – and that’s why at the municipal level, the best predictor of winning is incumbency. People are familiar with a candidate who is already on Council, and therefore under most circumstances, there is an increased likelihood that they’ll cast their ballot for incumbents.

That scenario might not be at play in Greater Sudbury’s municipal election this time around. Certainly, if I were an incumbent, I wouldn’t be relying on my name recognition alone to have the voters return me to office – although even I believe that our incumbents are starting with an advantage in terms of name recognition (and I’m predicting that a good number of them will, in fact, be returned to office).

Spending Money

Non-incumbent candidates, then, have to rely on other means to “get the word out” to voters that they’re even in the race. Unfortunately (in my opinion), the best means available for them to do so appears to be advertising. And that costs money. With campaign spending capped at a certain level (dependent upon the number of electors eligible to vote), what we end up with are relatively low spending limits for those running for Council at the ward level (maybe around $10,000 – which can be spread out over as much as 10 months, if a candidate registered on January 2nd), and much higher limits for those running for Mayor (Marianne Matichuk, Greater Sudbury’s current Mayor, spent about $150,000 on her campaign in 2010, about twice as much as the next highest spender).

In short, money buys exposure. If you’ve got money in your campaign pockets, you’re ahead of the game. Money clearly had an impact on our City’s mayoral race in 2010 – it may end up having the same impact this time around, too.

What ends up happening, of course, is that the focus on municipal elections comes down to the mainstream media looking at only those candidates capable of buying recognition. Those in the media believe that if a candidate is serious, they’ll be able to raise money to run. Non-serious candidates will raise much less money. Serious candidates get the coverage – non-serious candidates don’t. Therefore, seriousness is equated with spending money – and the vicious cycle of consumer-driven politics continues.

And at the ward level, unless a candidate can somehow demonstrate that seriousness in another way (hampered as they are by spending limits), they’re going to garner little coverage from a mainstream media already stretched to the limits of its own dwindling resources, and who may also have concerns about providing equitable coverage for all ward races. In short, if you’re running to be a Ward Councillor, the mainstream media isn’t going to give you a lot of exposure – and therefore voters really can’t rely on the mainstream media to be of great assistance.

Social Media

So how does a ward candidate gain exposure? Some believe that the rise of social media is starting to change things. Maybe it is – but I’m certainly not going to bet on it. The really innovative tools of social media are only being embraced significantly by younger people – the very same people least likely to vote, especially in municipal elections. Social media sites from the previous decade, like Facebook, which have a higher number of middle-aged users, are really only marginal vehicles for candidates to get the message out. Ditto for websites, to which traffic must be somehow driven. That being said, having your own website, Facebook page or group has become a standard hallmark of how serious an election candidate is. Frankly, if you’re not on Facebook, or if you don’t have a website, you’re not serious about communicating with the public – even if you do manage to get yourself elected.

Note to those candidates who don’t use email: I’m just appalled. Email is a 20th century communications technology. It’s basic. Are you relying on the telegraph or fax machine to get your message out?

Wesbsites and social media clearly aren’t the right vehicle at this time for low-profile candidates to get their messages out, even if they do need to form a basic part of one’s campaign. So, what is the best way for a candidate to grow their name recognition?

The best way is also the hardest way. Earn it.

Door Knocking

Knocking on doors and making real, personal connections with voters is the best way to earn recognition. Having conversations with voters, maybe several at a time, over coffee or whatever, also helps. When you make a positive personal connection with a voter, chances are that voter is going to pass along that impression to other voters. Knocking on doors is essential – and those candidates who registered to run back in January AND who started knocking on doors at the same time will be the ones who are already demonstrating their advantage over other candidates.

Of course, we all know that most candidates have only recently started door-knocking, even those who did register much earlier in the year. Why they’ve surrendered this opportunity for advantage is beyond me. Well, no, it’s not actually beyond me – I know very well why. Knocking on doors is hard. And it can be downright depressing – especially when voters give you feedback that they’re not interested in hearing about yet another election campaign – one which is many months away, too.

Persistence in the face of opposition, though, has a big return. It’s what you’ve got to do if you’re going to win when nobody knows who you are.


The second best way of getting your name out there is to advertise. With limited budgets, there’s really only one way for ward candidates to do that – and that’s through election signs. As much as these signs are annoying and create a form of visual pollution which irritates citizens to no end, they are also largely tolerated by a voting public which recognizes the limited opportunities which candidates have to get recognized.

Signs create the perception of campaign momentum. As they are seen by members of the travelling public, they begin to imprint themselves in the minds of voters. When voters see a lot of signs belonging to a particular candidate, even when voters aren’t consciously thinking about it, those signs begin to register. Candidates who have fewer signs risk voters subconsciously dismissing them as serious candidates (because the visual cues are largely missing) and consciously as well (“Where are John Dough’s signs? I don’t see any so he can’t be serious).

Sometimes candidates opt not to use signs, for whatever reason (often, environmental reasons are given). While it may be that incumbents can get away with this approach (did Hazel McCallion use signs at all in her last half dozen or so elections?), good luck to those relatively unknown candidates who don’t want to use signs out of fear that they generate waste. My advice is that while I share your noble ideals, they would be easier to implement with you on the inside of the corridors of power, rather than on the outside, where you’re far more likely to find yourself after election day. Take note, Greens – signs are a necessary evil. Just please try to recycle them.

Signs – Placement

In short, signs are a pretty good proxy for doing some of the hard work needed to get elected. Why only some? Well, coming by some sign locations can be fairly easy. Is that a sign from one of your competitors on a commercial property? Call up the property owner, who might not even be able to vote in your ward, and ask their permission to put up one of your signs too, out of the interests of equity. Or maybe some candidates just put up a sign anyway, knowing that they’re running the risk of the property owner’s wrath – if they bother to check whether they might have given you permission to put one up or not when there are signs for Mayor, a half dozen councillors and a hand full of school trustees littering a narrow strip of grass between the sidewalk and a parking lot.

Those commercial properties often have good visibility to the travelling public – and they’re easy wins. But for keen observers, it’s the signs on lawns which often tell a more important story. Those lawns are owned by voters who are actually liable to vote – they’ve gone through effort of deciding to publicly support a particular candidate. Those signs represent real votes – and often are the result of the up-front investment of time a candidate has made knocking on doors.

Oh Yeah – Issues!

Oh – what about the issues? Don’t voters want to hear about the issues? Isn’t your stance on the ombudsman or healthy community funds important? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s good to have stances on issues of local importance, and it’s even good to have a few more fully fleshed out ideas about what you’d like to do should you become Councillor (a good plan is to take a position on a matter important in your ward and add some structure to how you would make it work – or, more easily, oppose something that’s not wanted – as an aside, here’s an example of that from Ward 10 candidate Hannu Piironen, opposing a downtown casino for Ward 10: “Ward 10 candidate comes out against casino”, the Sudbury Star, September 12, 2014).

Some candidates believe that they’ve got to take positions on everything. I’d suggest that while it’s a good idea to have some ideas to campaign on, candidates are wise to do a lot of listening to voters when they’re knocking on their doors, rather than telling voters what they would do about every little issue. When you listen, you connect with people. Telling voters your plan often sounds a little dictatorial – and if voters take issue with even a small part of your comprehensive program, they may very well opt to be dismissive of it in its entirety.

As a member of the Green Party, I happen to know a thing or two about this. How often have I heard, “I love your policies on the environment and health care and trade – but that marijuana policy just turns me off. I can never support you.”

Pulling a Hudak – Playing Fast & Loose with Facts & Figures

But if you are going to talk policy, make sure that you’ve got it straight. It’s fine to tell someone that you want to do such and such a thing, but if you don’t know how you’re going to do it, or how you’re going to pay for doing it, you’re going to run into trouble quickly. Or, if you tell voters that you’ll do something that you actually can’t do, it really shakes your credibility. By way of example of the latter, Mayoral candidate Dan Melanson has already run afoul by claiming he’d use municipal bonds to fund needed watershed studies – something which legislation says quite clearly he can’t do. When you make this kind of mistake, voters can’t help but wonder if you’re deliberately trying to mislead them, or just incompetent – not a choice that you want voters to have to make about you.

Playing fast and loose with numbers and statistics is also very problematic and should be avoided. Look at what happened to Tim Hudak with his made-up job creation numbers. If you want to cost your platform, go ahead – but use the best available data, cite your sources, list your assumptions, and be ready to be challenged – because you will be! Don’t pull a Hudak.

Listening to Voters and Sticking to Messages

As much as it pains me to write this, your policy and platform aren’t going to get you elected, no matter how well-thought out it is, or how much work you’ve put into it. A much better use of your time is, well, knocking on doors and making those personal connections with voters – and inviting them to put up one of your signs. Even people like me who live and breathe that policy stuff often find themselves swayed by personal connections made at the doorstep or at a coffee shop or in a friend’s kitchen.

In 2008, Stephen Harper famously ran a federal election campaign on just 5 points – 4 of which nobody can remember, and the 5th being to cut the GST by 2%. In 2010, Marianne Matichuk ran for Mayor on just three points: more flexible shopping hours, a line-by-line budget review and, “I’m not John Rodriguez”.

For Candidates

To candidates I say, stick to your core messages, deliver them well, and listen. Get your signs up wherever you can. And keep knocking on doors. With all of the candidates in the race in your ward, you could win this thing with only 25% of votes cast – so something like 13-15% of eligible voters in your ward, thanks to our archaic first-past-the-post voting system.

For Responsible Voters

To voters looking for information, I suggest that you scope your investigations to those candidates who seem to be taking the election seriously – and while this might still be the majority of candidates, it’s certainly not everybody. Don’t rely on the mainstream media for your information (and don’t bemoan the lack of information they’re providing – they’ve got a lot of issues of their own) . Signs can tell you where campaign momentum might be coming from, but they tell you nothing more than the theoretical popularity of a candidate.

There are good sources of information out there online which might help you decide how to vote. Visit the Coalition for a Livable Sudbury’s “Sudbury Candidates” website – they’ve distilled candidate responses on a range of issues there. Also, check out conversations on Facebook Groups such as the innovate “Meet the Voters of Wards 5, 6 and 7” – a group where voters can throw questions out there, and candidates who are active on Facebook can respond.

Visit the websites of candidates in your ward - most probably have them. If there’s something that you want to explore further, send them an email and see what they say in response. If you like what you hear, consider taking a sign – while your vote on election day is going to be a big help, I hope that after reading this post you would agree that signs are very important to ward candidates.

Yes, all of this takes time – and it would be so much easier if we could just read about candidates in the media. The media, though, will always have its own bias, which favours what they perceive to be the front runners. Keep in mind that voting is a responsibility and as such, probably should involve a little bit of personal investment on your part. I know that since you’ve read this blogpost up to this point, that you’re very capable and able to put some of your time into finding out more about the candidates running in your ward – or at least about those candidates who have made an effort.

And if a candidate knocks on your door – please take the time to talk to him (spoiler alert: for me, that’s the real story of our municipal election here in Greater Sudbury – the fact that 9 out of 10 candidates who are likely to knock on your door are men – more on this appalling development later). That personal connection might ultimately be what informs how you vote – and it also may very well inform how a candidate who listens to voters ultimately represents their views and opinions.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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