Friday, November 19, 2010

Social Media; a Panacea for Election Victory?

I’ve been reading some of the background from the so-called Calgary pundits on the rationale for the Nenshi victory in the 2010 campaign for the Mayor’s chair in Calgary. Most claim the Nenshi Campaign won using social media; Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, etc…

Once again the media declares that Calgary voters are not bright enough to select the right person unless they are manipulated into doing so.

Opposition Parties tried the “blame game” in the last Provincial election, blaming the voters for not voting other than Conservative or as the majority did, not vote at all.

I, for one do not believe the social media campaign played as major a role as some folks would have us believe. Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe the Nenshi campaign used social media far more effectively than the other major campaigns but to suggest it was the major reason for the victory does not compute with me.

What do I mean by this?

Well, from all or most of the media reports the Nenshi team won the campaign by methods best described as unconventional, innovative, forward-thinking and other descriptors that preclude the fact that voters simply reviewed the cast of characters, wanted to make sure they didn’t display the apathy from past elections, felt the need for a change at the Mayor’s position, got off their collective butts and voted.

Allow me a little preamble that will include some obvious facts.

First, the Higgins campaign came out of the gate fast and furious failed to deliver and fizzled at the end. There are reasons for this some of which were a result of my poor decision making and others that need to be discussed.

1. Barb Higgins came into the race albeit late (end of July) with huge trust numbers and fantastic name recognition, all great aspects for a municipal campaign usually decided on these very factors due mainly to poor voter turnout.

2. The candidate being a political novice had some difficulty delivering a political message. Some examples were the issue of the Southwest Ring Road debated at the Oakridge Community Centre forum and the matter of campaign donors. The media jumped all over these miscues early.

3. We played the forum game too early and too long and did not engage directly with the voter from the beginning. What I mean is we started attending all the small, usually single issue forums which attract a handful of undecided voters at best and wasted valuable time getting the message to the voter. The local media made the decision to attend the vast majority of these forums, reporting mostly on the absence of the various candidates, slamming those who did not attend and not giving adequate coverage on issues using many excuses for this decision. I consider this a very lazy way to report on campaigns, but hey I don’t direct the news. Global bought into the game by broadcasting the likes of the Brian Lee forum, even reporting it as Calgary’s first Mayor’s forum when there had already been a number of forums previous to this one. Since they were a de facto sponsor it was in their interest to declare this to be the first forum.

4. The Calgary media soon began to diminish any strength that Higgins had. The major municipal reporter from the Calgary Sun decided to play the candidate as a light weight, earnestly and continuously. The Herald reporters were not much better and one Calgary MLA was outright rude and abusive to her in a conversation with his colleagues that become public. I have to question the elephant in the room and wonder would they have done this to a male candidate.

5. We should have released policy earlier and in a more concise fashion.

Aside from the above, we should have and could have run a much better campaign. We had a great team, a terrific candidate and the financing to get the job done. Again, that rests with me. The bottom line, it was our campaign to lose and we did. Some will say 3rd place isn’t the end of the world; remember there were only 3 candidates of significance at the end.

Second, the McIver campaign did what it was supposed to do. Ric, steady as she goes, received the support he was always meant to get. In true Conservative fashion in Calgary, keep your head down, march straight ahead and the voters will stay true to form and vote for the Conservatives.

What the McIver team, bolstered by Ted Morton’s people and Rob Ander’s folks failed to understand was that Calgary voters have not, in recent memory, elected the most Conservative candidate. In fact, they elected Liberals in the form of Ralph Klein, Al Duerr and Dave Bronconnier.

So there were no surprises here.

Now let’s get to what did happen.

The simple fact is this, the voters chose the candidate that they felt would best do the job, clear and simple and history supports this perspective; the candidate that resonated with them.

The David Peterson Ontario Provincial election in 1990 was a prime example of my hypothesis. Peterson called an ill-conceived election early in his mandate, less than 3 years in. He also was a key player in the support for the failed Meech Lake Accord which fell apart in June, 1990. The final insult to the voter was calling a summer election when the last thing Ontarians wanted to do was think about politics.

Initially reporters felt Peterson would return with a majority Government but the voters were thinking something else, to punish him for Meech Lake and the election call in the summer months.

Ontario voters looked at the three parties, Liberals, Conservatives and the NDP and surprising all, they gave the nod in overwhelming fashion to the NDP increasing their seat count by 55. The NDP Leader, Bob Rae looked like a deer in the headlights the night of the election. No one was more surprised than Rae that the NDP had won and with such a resounding result; much like Nenshi in Calgary.

In the aftermath of that election victory the NDP attributed the outcome to a negative; US style campaign they ran in that election. Of course this was not the reason for the victory, simply put, the voters trusted Bob Rae.

The negative, US style campaign was tried again in the ’92 by-election held in Calgary-Buffalo after the death of Sheldon Chumir. I managed the winning campaign for Gary Dickson. The NDP sent out their Ontario team to work with the ND candidate, Elaine Husband. The result of their negative campaign was 54% support for Dickson and 25% support for Husband on Election Day.

Next we move to 1993 federal campaign and the election of the Jean Chrétien Liberals. The Progressive Conservatives were coming off back to back significant majority Governments, 1884 & 1988. While there were cracks in the PC armor the outcome was not predicted.

I managed the ’93 election for Bob Blair in Calgary Centre and we had access to a daily tracking poll coming out of BC. This poll was days ahead of the national polls, even as much as a week. Unknown to most, the electorate moved en masse, leaving the PCs and moving to the new Reform Party. For a period of 6 days during that campaign the voters of Canada were electing a majority Reform Government.

Finally, they moved to the Liberals in numbers large enough to reward Chrétien with an increase of 97 seats and a majority Government. In the end the voters chose honesty, trust and integrity similar to the decision in the 1990 Ontario election.

Folks, this is what voters in Calgary did, choosing Nenshi because they perceived him to be honest and qualified for the job.

However, always looking for magic, I expect campaigns to place over-emphasized efforts on social media.

However, campaigns are about hard work and organization. The most important factor in any successful campaign is the ability to speak to and connect to voters on matters that the voters want to discuss.

When campaigns do not talk to Calgarians and Albertans about issues that they want to speak about we get, understandably so, voter apathy and low voter turnout.

So please no more discussion of the magic of the social media. Voters supported Nenshi across all of the political demographics, age, income, education, gender and ethnicity. Not all are heavily connected with social media. Social media is one tool in a campaign strategy, not a panacea for future elections. If we fall into this trap we will not put the work into a campaign that creates success.

One man’s opinion


  1. As somebody who worked on web campaigns for more than a decade, I have to admit that I am constantly dismayed by campaign teams who seriously overestimate what they can accomplish via social media.

    My advice echoes Donn's:get your campaign in order and use social media as one of many tools in the toolbox.

    I have no doubt that the mythical role of social media in the Nenshi campaign will lead many other campaign teams astray over the next five years. Fortunately, I won't have to sit at the table and watch it happen.

  2. Donn, very well put. Social media is a collection of communication tools that helps deliver a strong message to those that are concerned. It's first a platform that enables candidates to hear voters. And only then, a platform that enables candidates to deliver the message.

  3. I agree its not a panacea- but it sure does help to understand how to use it and to understand why it can help. It speaks to what voters want- honesty and connectivity over controlled centralized messaging. People want a candidate that isn't a mouth piece for someone else's thoughts.

  4. Interesting read.

    Perhaps the outcome was not dictated by social media, but do you think that the high levels of voter turnout might be attributed to it, in part? I would suspect it played a role in getting more young voters out and engaged. And if I'm not mistaken it was Nenshi's ability to suddenly engage those voters which created much of the stir around him, was it not?

    Certainly his ability to connect with Calgarians and earn their trust as a bringer of positive change was necessary - I doubt McIver, for example, would have seen hugely different results if he had launched a similar social media campaign - but Nenshi's message of change was largely encompassed by his new-school media methods. I think it's a fair hypothesis to say that social media played a large role in Nenshi's election because it represented a fresh way of thinking that he was then able to tie to his image as a fresh new face for Calgary, but that social media cannot be given all the credit - it had to fit the role.

    So I agree that social media alone should not be hailed as the be-all-end-all of campaigning, but that Nenshi was very effective in creating an appropriate role for it.

    One young person's opinion,


  5. I agree totally - I am not on social media and neither are most of my friends - we all voted for the person that we thought best voiced our concerns and presented ideas that resonatted with us

  6. Thanks for the add, keep connected,

  7. Alex, I trust you see we are in sinc, I think that social media should be engaged and will eventually serve a higher purpose on campaigns.

  8. Zak, I believe you and I agree that social media will become a larger force, not forgetting the nuts and bolts of campaigning, you did very well one-on-one with voters, at the door, on the street, etc...

  9. Evan, we agree and we disagree. Yes, Nenshi used social media better than any campaign and that would have attracted young people. However, voter turnout was a result of electing a new Mayor, disenchanted voters and failures to engage by the other major candidates. If we read too much into the social media we will lose the big picture. Nice to be connected to you and maybe you will change this ole man's mind.

  10. although Nenshi's campaign did do some brilliant things that didn't cost much money - writing in purple chalk on the sidewalk outside Starbucks locations was a great idea...if only we'd had teal sidewalk chalk outside Tim's!

  11. Sidewalk was a terrific idea, fun is always a good idea in politics, n'est pas?

  12. Agreed Donn. Some journalists get caught up in a slightly misunderstood McLuhan paradigm that, "the medium is the message" (not their fault really, they do go to school).

    What really interests me is the literature suggesting negative campaigns work by keeping voters home (ie, an undecided voter is likely to become so disgusted with politics in general, they won't bother to vote), which has implications for narrow casting and when, if ever, progressive candidates can afford to go negative.


  13. Canadians by nature do not buy into negative campaigning, witnessed by the reaction to the ad the Conservatives ran against Chrétien in the '93 campaign, referred to as the "face ad".

    Ad # 7 in the top 10 negative ads.

    I really like the Daisy ad that's missing here, as well, try;