“Harper’s Team” reviewed: Lessons for the Green Party

Magikal Tome?

Magikal Tome?

Two weeks ago I picked up a copy of “Harper’s Team” by Tom Flanagan. I had seen a recommendation in Report on Greens, and being naturally interested in a first hand view of how the conditions were created for the rise of the Conservative Party from has been to the currently dominant political force in Canada.

I have spent, (according to my wife, wasted), thousands of hours canvassing, fund raising, devising and designing GOTV programs, implementing databases, and data management programs on behalf of various GPC campaigns.  The sundry challenging tasks of Green Party cat herding, that some call campaign management have taken their toll. I yearned to find the secrets to how to really make it work. ‘Surely’, I asked myself, ‘there is some magic potion that these Conservative rascals imbibed to bring them invincible strength? Perhaps the formula lies between the dusty covers of this rare tome?’

Now I can reveal the truth to my readers. Nope, no magic potions here. Once again, the truth’s within those dusty (actually shiny new) covers is prosaic. The most important thing about it is that it doesn’t come from an obscure Green activist, and businessman crying ‘but it’s OBVIOUS what we have to do.’ It is coming from the Campaign Manager that deployed prosaic tools and organizational principles to seize power within our Parliamentary Democracy.

My first comment is a negative. This book isn’t a work by a master of communication and disinformation like Warren Kinsella. Kinsella’s book, “The War Room” rambles a bit, and is kind of heavy in the name dropping, and self congratulation departments, but you have no doubt that you are imbibing the real brew.

What this book is, is a well written eye witness narrative of Harpers career from 2002 on. It shines a light on the early history of the Alliance, and the subsequent PC merger that gave birth to the CPC. I won’t go through the nitty gritty of who did what, with whom, and for whoever. I will once again filter the book for lessons for the Green Party to apply.

Start every campaign with analysis, and a plan. SWOT analysis, familiar to business managers stands for Strength Weakness Opportunity Threat. Look objectively at all sides of the equation. Develop a strategy to maximise, minimise, exploit, and counteract respectively. Sounds easy? It isn’t. It needs to be concise, and readily grasped and expanded on by a whole team of individuals.

From that starting point, develop the campaign theme, and message. This shouldn’t be an ad hoc exercise. You might start with a gut feel, but you pursue professionally conducted political issues research. That means opinion polling, with a focus on what messages, and presentation will achieve your strategic ends. For example, if you are the strong front-runner, and your primary objective is to protect your lead, and resist encroachment, then you will research amongst supporters to determine why they support you, and what message is most likely to re-enforce this support.

The structure of the campaign is important. To a certain extent, the strategy will be formulated based upon the skills available. The managers task is to ensure that the right skills, and people are in place to implement the plan. A strong chair is essential, because there will always be stress and tension within the team. The Chair must ensure that the team ends up pulling together. That means managing, and yes, even manipulating these tensions to spur on better results.

Flanagan stresses the importance of advance planning of the campaign based upon a campaign calendar. My personal opinion is that the emphasis on planning every single day of the Campaign which he believed was essential proved to be the CPC’s undoing in the 2008 campaign. Their plan was so rigid, that they continued to try to control and direct the message, even while stock markets were collapsing around them. They failed to adapt, and it made them look totally out of touch for the tail end of the Campaign. Kinsella understood the need for adaptability, and stresses that again and again in his book. Had Kinsella run the Conservative War Room, we would probably have a CPC majority government today.

For the actual mechanics of campaigning, this is where Flanagans book gets really interesting. Arguably the single most important tool that the CPC and Stephen Harper have employed is direct mail fund raising. In different circumstances, his various campaigns were able to direct hard hitting, very specific appeals for cash to their various mailing lists. There would always be some specific objective and appeal. Not just a generic, ‘give us some cash’ but more like, ‘together, we need to stop X,Y, and Z happening. We need this much to do it. Give generously using this postage paid reply envelope.’ Every campaign started with such direct appeals, and they really worked. The CPC continues to go back to the well again, and again, and this tool forms the basis of their financial muscle.

Another interesting outreach tool discussed in depth by Flanagan is various types of phone bank. One of the earliest tools employed was predictive dialler’s. Flanagan assumes his reader knows what this is, but for the uninitiated, I’ll offer a brief description. A computer can be adapted with a special phone board to manage multiple phone connections at once. A single board can handle up to 32 separate lines at once. Predictive dialling software/hardware setups will automatically dial 32 people at once, and there will be a number of separate phone operators networked with this dialler. When someone receives such a call, they can either be patched through immediately to a live operator, or they could have pre-recorded option presented to them like ‘dial two to speak to an operator’. Using fairly small teams of volunteers, the campaign can plow through large numbers of phone calls fairly quickly. More sophisticated types of dialling technology can be employed, depending upon the task being performed, and the numbers involved.

The lessons ultimately learned by Flanagan were as follows: For ID’ing the vote, on a really large scale, the best way to make a large number of these relatively simple phone calls is to hire a professional telemarketing firm. There is little, or no persuasion going on, other than a few simple stock pitches, so paid telemarketers can do this very efficiently indeed. The calls can be targetted by sorting a large database to separate the polls which had good Conservative (or Green), turnouts in past elections. That way, the best response rates can be guaranteed. The CPC does this ongoing, even outside of election periods. It enables them to build up supporter databases so they can go to these people to Get Out The Vote in future campaigns, and it gives them hot pre-qualified prospect lists for their direct mail fund raising letters.

For persuasion type phone banking, volunteers are better. They will generally have more policy knowledge, and more interest in spending some time persuading people to change their vote. The Conservatives actually own their own predictive dialler’s, and set up phone banks in their War Room, or wherever the volunteers can most easily be gathered. They use these teams to target undecided voters, to convert them to Conservatives. They will also target soft supporters of the other Party’s. As I have mentioned elsewhere, they could have the twin objectives of either converting these votes, or suppressing turnout for the opposition Party’s. Volunteers are much better at raising money as well. Because they cost nothing in wages, and can be more adaptable, a volunteer phone bank can generally be relied on to break even, or even turn a small ‘profit’ by asking for donations as part of their standard pitch. Any type of phone banking can be targeted anywhere in the country. If the campaign calls for an extra effort in one particular riding, then all the phone banks can concentrate on it, until it has been thoroughly canvassed, and persuaded. Obviously, this calls for good data management, and co-ordination.

The Data management discussed was, in my opinion, the single most important innovation of the Harper team. They invested some pretty serious money in creating a single database hosted by the National Party headquarters. The reason this was so important is because, just like the Green Party, the majority of the contacts made at the local level during a campaign would not be recorded, or preserved between elections. These supporters would therefore not be accesable to co-ordinated fund-raising efforts. They would also be lost before the next campaign, and the voter ID effort would have to begin from scratch. The Green Party of Canada has made some feeble efforts along these lines with their CIVICRM, but frankly the software is crap, and no-one in their right mind would base their campaign data management on such a time consuming clunky piece of junk. What is needed is a fluent, easy to use database. It needs to have easy user interfaces, and should be blindingly fast, no matter how many users there are.

Flanagan wrote a lot about message, and the air war. The air war consists of advertising, plus earned media. Frankly, while it makes for OK reading for a campaign buff like myself, if you want to learn about communications, read Warren Kinsella’s “The War Room”.

In conclusion, the Conservative Party has many lessons to teach the Green Party of Canada. It’s not that the Green Party doesn’t know these lessons. It’s more that they need to have their noses rubbed in the fact that Yes, these things work, and are capable of propelling an extremist party into government when used correctly. (hint hint)

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Trippi Review; And the winner WAS.. Old school dirty tricks

Joe Trippi

Joe Trippi

In this continuing review of Joe Trippi’s “The Revolution will Not be Televised” , I have to report some pretty mixed feelings. In his book, as the ‘Dean for America’ online campaign takes flight, it massively exceeds the political establishments expectations. At the same time, the organizational weakness of the Dean for America campaign starts to exert a negative influence.

I guess I’ll break it into two competing themes. The first is so exciting to read about! Born out of need, the web based networking campaign starts to virally spread it’s wings, and permeates every crack of every region in America. The integration of Meetup.com, and later the GetLocal tools into the campaign really empower decentralized campaigning. People are easily enabled to act on their own initiative. Instead of passively waiting to be organized, the ‘membership’ seizes these tools, and starts to organize hundreds, and then thousands of events without reference to the Campaign team in Vermont. According to Trippi, it is this very act of empowerment that breathes life and vigour into the campaign. Dean himself becomes the vessel into which thousands upon thousands of people pour their hopes and dreams. In practical terms, meetup actively engages people, and pulls them from their musty basements into the real world as political activists. It is the tool which translates thought, debate, and sense of community into action.

As the campaign progresses, and the wider world of old school media, and machine politics of the democratic Party starts to notice something happening, things are taking a somewhat different turn. Trippi the long time operative, fieldwork guru, and master of message is watching both the wild new world unfolding, and the ‘real world’ big bad wolf knocking at the door. The opposition research of the competing campaigns is building their files, and starting to release damaging attacks on Dean in the old world of Televised politics. The Campaign is suffering from the usual divided camps within the campaign office. There are few communications professionals to massage the media and message. This is aggravated by Dean’s unscripted, and off message public communications. Without a team to help craft the message, and spin the opposition press releases, more and more damaging hits are being landed on the campaign. Is the fieldwork solid in Idaho? The answer is no. On the ground, there is tons of action, and the new world is having an astounding impact, but the solid, methodical, machine like groundwork is not quite happening.

The demise of the Dean for America campaign was, according to Trippi, an out of context, but embarrasing video clip palyed over, and over, and over again by the mainstream media. The ultimate victory of the ‘big guns’, was determined despite all the thousands of faithful grassroots supporters. An indifferent public was bombarded with inconsequential fluff, and the Campaign was thus decided.

There is so much of interest in this story overall, and I would enthusiastically endorse it as a good read. As a template for the new world of politics, my expectations were upset. By repute, Trippi had revolutionised politics, and the old ways of TV politics were doomed. After a cereful reading, what I take away is the opposite. Yes, there exists an exciting ‘new’ tool that Trippi released on the world. Yes, it HAS changed the way that politics is done in North America. No, the old world of TV politics is nowhere near doomed. These campaign tools are the subtext, while the Campaign writ large is still about message, organization, Identifying, then getting out the vote.

Just look at Obama. His team wrote the most recent chapter in this saga, and they won by feeding their machine with the juices squeezed from Trippi’s creation. Their grassroots organization was inspired by the Dean campaign. Their air war, and ground war were inspired by hundreds of years of electoral political history.

The Green Party Revolution will not be Televised: Trippi review continued.

Not a 30 second spot

Not a 30 second spot

Continuing from my previous post, the Joe Trippi book, “The Revolution will not be Televised” is chock full of good stuff. I’ll reiterate again, that the lessons of US Politics don’t translate 100%, but there are some home truths revealed there. I know you want to hear about the magic bullet, how the Green Party can transform politics, and really kick ass, but these posts are a slower journey through Trippis career, and the general methodology of political campaigning. If we can understand the intended function, and motivations of the Dean campaign, then we can better hope to duplicate it’s success in our own unique circumstances.

In Chapter 2 of this book, Trippi related how he had watched with fascination while one of his opponents, Gary Hart (Trippi was on the Mondale team), did something dramatically different from the normal machine campaign. He came into town, and instead of addressing a crowd, and zooming away for another meeting, Hart would arrive, and have a quiet, lengthy meeting with a smaller number of active, and influential people. He would turn his charm on them 100% for hours, and win them over, then move on to the next town. These people were left behind as committed supporters, dropping a word in their friends ears. Harts influence steadily grew, long after the machine politicians visit was forgotten. Trippi was to apply this lesson later for Dean, and in a big way.

From Chapter 3 in the book, Trippi writes about the time when he moved from Fieldwork, and on the ground organizing, to the media and message realm of politics. Boy is he down on TV! It must have sucked to earn his living doing something he felt was icky and repulsive, but he determined to excel, and claims that he did so. Positive Message is about analysing strengths of your candidate, and reducing them to 30 second spots. The vast bulk of US politics takes place on Television, which is of course a passive medium. Since the paid component of TV is overwhelmingly 30 second spots, there is simply no time to discuss ideas, or policy. You need simple, compelling messages, and ideally a really visceral set of images to go with it. It needs to be visceral, because the audience is bombarded with ever more ‘compelling’ messages daily. Knowing they are being bullshitted, they filter out all but the most compelling driblets.

There are two ways to win a campaign. You can either build your own candidate up, and get your voters out, or you can tear the other candidate down, and get his voters to stay at home. Guess which type of message is easier to turn into visceral images, and quick compelling messages? Especially when the desired outcome is a LACK of action, (Going out to stand in line and vote), it’s plenty easier to keep people at home, than it is to motivate people to get out there in a line-up.

What we are left with are literally billions of dollars of advertising competing to get the OTHER

Televise This!

Televise This!

guys voters to stay at home. When people are bombarded with what goddam creeps politicians are, surprise, surprise, they get turned off politics altogether. Politics stops being about ideas at all, and for Trippi, TV is the passive medium that drives this process. This of course takes huge amounts of cash, which in and of itself is perilous to the governance of the nation.

For Trippi, Field organizers are continuously looking for tools to ID their supporters. In a subsequent campaign, he put an idea to work to work positively through TV. At every single opportunity, his candidate, (in a gubernatorial race) held up a large card with a 1-800 number on it. It worked! They got tons of people calling in, identifying themselves as supporters, and being pitched one-on-one. Obviously though, this would take a lot of telephone workers.

Now, by 2002, the Internet had more than passed it’s infancy. There was a really substantial number of users, and there was a growing plethora of functional tools that were accustoming people to spending, communicating, commenting, and being more participatory online. Especially amongst younger demographics, there were a growing chunk of people who actually spent more time online than watching TV.

When Trippi met Howard Dean, he was really impressed by him. He saw a genuine, and unscripted guy, who he felt had the ability to be a great President. After a long romance, he finally agreed to join the Campaign. The campaign was 2 years too late to run a ‘normal’ presidential bid. There were a few thousand potential supporters names on business cards, paper lists, and even napkins stuffed into a pile of shoeboxes. The money was practically non-existent, and there were about 10 people in a musty 1,000 sq. ft. office. It was imperative that they build a nationwide campaign, and had about a year to do it. The fact is, that doing classic fieldwork, it would take hundreds of organizers, and millions of dollars to even get the ball started rolling. There just weren’t enough heads to plan a fraction of the required structure.

In a nutshell, the campaign had to massively decentralize the campaign. They had to positively engage thousands of volunteers, and start ID’ing supporters. The Hart campaign had shown how quality interaction with people won a lot more than a few votes, it won you active advocates. The Internet had started to come into it’s own, and was a uniquely interactive, and inviting medium. The Dean Team didn’t really know that they could have an inspiring outcome, but they didn’t have much choice in the matter, so they hired a webmaster, hooked up with some bloggers, and started the Dean for America Campaign.

The lessons I would draw from all of the above for the Green Party, is that a 100% positive message will really set us apart from the pack. TV is a waste of time, except inasmuch as it can pass along a simple compelling, and differentiated message. How about, ” We are the Party of positive ideas. They’re important, and compelling, but 30 seconds is too short to tell them to you. Don’t waste your vote on the same old, until you have visited our website at www.greenparty.ca , where you can learn for yourself how we intend to improve the country, and your life.” Our website better be a whole lot better than it is right now, but that’s a whole other topic. In addition, our website should actively seek interaction with ALL visitors. Invite them into a green community, with open unmoderated forums. Currently, the website is locked down, and doesn’t even invite people to register as a supporter! There are hundreds of thousands of visitors who might easily click a button, and go on our ID’d supporters lists, but today they don’t have that invitation.

I guess this post has been a ‘backgrounder’. I’ll get into more nuts and bolts of Trippi’s Dean for America campaign on my next post.

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