Lessons From the Campaign Trail

Door to doorI always learn something new, something valuable from every municipal election campaign. I learn from talking to people, I learn from community meetings. I learn from comments and emails I receive. I learn from other candidates, too – there are often good ideas proposed that can be developed by council later.

Each election campaign has been a bit different, and I’ve tried different approaches each time. In some, I’ve done more door knocking; in others I’ve done more mailing. I’ve tried different signs, different literature. This time, I knocked on a lot of doors. It’s been educational every time.

Here are a few of my thoughts about campaigning this term (and some thoughts that have percolated through from the five elections in which I have run as a candidate):

1. Face to face matters. No brochure or lawn sign can match the value of actually talking to someone at the door. Going door-to-door is a grinding, often tedious and tiring process, but nothing can match it for getting in touch with the voters. People want to voice their opinions, their concerns, ask questions and get answers. People like seeing their candidates, putting a face to the name. Nothing can match the personal interaction you get at the door.*

Be positive, be upbeat and be courteous at the door, even when you face someone hostile or an opponent’s supporter. Don’t argue or be impolite: leave them with a good impression of you.

2. All-candidates’ meetings are frustrating for voters. Talking one-on-one at the door is often appreciated more than all-candidates’ meetings. There the voters are a passive audience, unable to ask questions or challenge answers, debate, argue, even talk with candidates. Many people I spoke to at these meetings said they liked the time before and after the speeches best, so they could actually make direct contact with candidates.

Speeches don’t win many votes. In two or even five minutes, you can’t express your whole vision, your accomplishments, your hopes, dreams or even much of your bio. Just try to get a few salient points across that might be remembered later.

People match candidates’ faces with their names, so speaking well and confidently is important, too.

Small gatherings where people can speak one-on-one to candidates are more popular than big venues with 300-400 people in the audience. But events where only a select group of candidates are invited poisons the atmosphere for residents and candidates alike. People want fairness and openness during elections, not secrecy and exclusiveness.

3. A growing number of people don’t heed local media. This observation is based on the remarkable number of local newspapers seen still in bags on driveways or porches, days or even weeks after they have been delivered. We saw them piled in blue bins, unopened, lying on lawns, sodden after many rains. We saw them filling mail boxes, ignored. The number was higher in the new subdivisions, but still significant in the inner town.

I don’t know if it affects their online media version, but it does suggest print media has lost at least some of its influence. I don’t know if this affects local radio and TV, either. In casual conversations, several people commented positively on the new classical radio station, but didn’t say much if anything about other radio stations.

This concerns me. As a former newspaper reporter and editor for a local paper, I worry that local media may not be engaging people as well as it did in my day. I don’t know how to remedy that, or even if it can be turned around. Council and the municipality have to find other ways to engage the public more directly.

On the other hand, I suspect it also means the ongoing efforts by hostile and openly biased media to discredit this council have gone unheeded by people who just don’t read the local papers.

Similarly when I mentioned hostile and self-aggrandizing local bloggers, my comments were often met by blank looks or shrugs. Seems their reach is not very wide, either, especially among long-time residents. Seniors, too, are not big users or fans of social media, and prefer the old-fashioned means of communication.

4. Many people have their minds made up already. With some exceptions, most of the people I spoke to had already decided which mayor and deputy-mayor to vote for, and had at least some of the council candidates in mind. This was before the ballots were mailed out, before any flyers arrived in the mail, and before any all-candidates’ meetings.

Some people were so sure about their choices, they turned in their completed ballots on Monday, the day they started arriving in the mail. By Tuesday, Oct. 13, the great majority of ballots will be completed and in the mail or already at town hall.

With a mail-in ballot, campaigns end abruptly a few days after the ballots get mailed out. For candidates, it means planning ahead, going door to door weeks in advance, and making sure you get your own mailing into voters’ hands before they return their ballots. Attack ads placed in papers this weekend will have minimal impact, except perhaps to further annoy residents (see below).

5. Most people dislike negative campaigning. I can’t say how it affected their voting, but many people complained to me about the negativity this election, about the “Toronto-style” or “big-city-style” politics, candidate-bashing at the all-candidates’ meeting, nasty ads, and the general attack-style politics that infected local campaigns. Others complained about some candidates going door-to-door spreading vitriol (and in at least one candidate’s visit, outright lies).

People prefer civil debate and respect over the belittling and demeaning of others. People want cooperation and teamwork at the council table: candidates who badmouth are signalling they can’t work with others. And those candidates who are targets of their vitriol will not be eager to work with the gossipers should both be elected to the same council (remember: everything you say to people at the door will make its way back to those you criticize).

Negative campaigning polarizes people around their reaction to the negativity rather than around issues.

Of course, if the public isn’t informed about facts or relies on biased media and self-serving bloggers, they are likely more receptive to negative campaigning. If you’ve already bought into the conspiracy theories, then the negativity only reinforces your beliefs.

6. People recognize that dirty politics hurts the whole community, not just other candidates. People complained not just about negative campaigns, but about how underhanded tactics like calling for an OPP investigation when someone didn’t like a council decision had made us all look bad and damaged the town’s reputation.

Seniors, especially, felt personally embarrassed by the bad press this town has received. Some of them voiced suspicions about which candidates were behind it.

7. Keep your literature short and to the point. Nobody has the time to read a book at the door. They want bullet points that highlight your key issues and/or promises. They don’t want to read lengthy biographies about your past jobs, your family, your pets or where your kids went to school. They want content; specific material, not fluff: they’re voting for you, not your family. If you need to say more, direct the reader to your website.

Make sure your type is clear and large enough. If seniors have to dig out a magnifying glass to read it, you’ve already lost them.

People are more tolerant of getting political literature than sales flyers. They keep it to read later when filling out their ballot. They remember the face they saw at the door from the image on your literature: a photo is a far better mnemonic than a slogan. Smile, don’t smirk, in your photo and look sincere.

8. Political slogans, jingoes, clichés, and vague promises don’t carry much weight with the voters. A good slogan might “capture lightning in a bottle” but those are few and far between. Most of the old chestnuts about change, transparency, new directions, putting your town first, or bright futures don’t engage anyone aside from the writer.

Name recognition is a far more powerful for garnering votes than some phrase a candidate thinks is catchy.

9. Lawn and boulevard signs aren’t books. They need your name and position you’re running for, in the largest, clearest type possible. High contrast helps, too.

If possible, put a good photograph of yourself on them (smiling: see above). Slogans and graphic images may not have much effect on voters and are often difficult to read or identify from a car driving past.

Pay attention to the town’s signage rules. Candidates who violate them will be targets of mockery and criticism, especially from other candidates. You don’t want to be labelled a rule-breaker even before you get out to meet people.

10. Avoid the time warps when stumping. People love to talk and it’s enjoyable to engage them. But it’s easy to get stuck at one door talking and missing stumping at many other doors. Keep your conversations limited to a few minutes and disengage politely when possible. Spending 15 minutes at one door may mean you miss talking to several other people on the street.

If you’re coming to the end of a day’s stumping, you can afford to be a little more lenient with your time. And if you’re out with a companion or a campaign helper, you can be more flexible, as long as you have arranged for the others to cover for your section if you get delayed.


* This election, I went out with Councillor Kevin Lloyd for about 80% of our door-knocking. We walked the same areas, doing opposite sides of the street, sometimes meeting to talk with a homeowner. Together we covered an estimated 4,300-4,500 homes; more than half the houses in Collingwood. Of that, we estimated between 10 and 20% of the people were home to talk. Of that group, more than 95% of those we spoke with were supportive or positive towards this council. And almost everyone was positive towards two council members campaigning together – and saw it as a show of cooperation and our ability to work together.

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