I am betting that very few people indeed have given much thought to the Liberal Party’s new ‘supporter’ category of membership. I guess I can see why. Most Liberals thrive on the ins and outs, the manoeuvering and machinations of Leadership politics. The media are even more enthralled, as can be seen by the breathless way in which they try to follow the twists and turns, gleefully uncovering blood-stained knives under pillows. Just look at a random sampling of headlines from todays papers: Bob Rae: The Real reason he won’t run… or: Rob Ghiz out of Grit leadership race, promotes Dalton McGuinty. Well I have a different perspective I guess, because for me, the biggest Liberal Leadership story is a previously unremarkable, and largely unremarked thing that is TRULY significant. To very little fanfare, the Liberal party has created a new membership class, that of supporter.
I must confess, when I first saw the announcement about supporter memberships I thought to myself: ‘Gee, that’s a good idea, the Liberals will be connecting to a lot of people that way.’ and moved on to other things. The seed was planted though, and over the next few days a few tactical considerations popped into my mind. For example, the need for Leadership candidates & teams to be networking outside the Liberal Party units and EDA’s was immediately obvious. Scratch a little deeper and one corollary is that there will have to be some policy substance behind that outreach. It is equally clear that if you want to engage people who are not currently members, you have to touch them in a spot where they feel strongly about something. That something has to have a political or public policy component, and you have to touch them deeply enough that they will click on a button on a screen somewhere and become a supporter of the Liberal Party. Follow it through to the logical conclusion and you will realise that having drawn the supporter that far, you now need to retain their interest, and keep them motivated until the day comes for them to go online and cast a ballot for the Candidate of their choice in the actual Leadership vote.
You may be asking yourself at this point: ‘Big deal, that is what we always did. Prospecting for, and signing up not very committed new members for a Leadership race.’ You would be kind of correct, except for one thing. There is zero cost to the commitment, and it happens with the click of a button, outside the control of the campaign that provided the impetus. The initial conversion from interested policy advocate to supporter of the Liberal Party is about the easiest political conversion you are going to find in Canadian politics. The cost is virtually nothing, clicking a button to support something you care about. The real trick will be in keeping the supporter engaged and motivating them to go through the voting process on eday. Sound familiar? Yep, it’s a general election! Except it will be easier to vote, because nobody has to get off their arse on eday to get to a polling station.
So you are probably still asking yourself, (if you even read this far); When is BGB going to get to the point? Well I already did. This Liberal leadership contest is going to be won by whoever is best at reaching out to previously uncommitted supporters, persuading really large numbers of people to become supporters, and then maximizing the actual turnouts. There will be no intermediaries between the supporter and their vote. No delegates to skew the outcomes and ‘split’ the votes. No dis-enfranchised voters disqualified for BS reasons. Just one supporter one vote.
Based upon my past experience in Green Party Leadership races, the proportion of members or supporters who cast their votes will be quite small. For example, on the Elizabeth May leadership campaign, I had volunteers canvassing the membership by phone using an online database to manage their contacts. (It was new and funky at the time anyway, even if it is old hat now) The entire membership, and lists of lapsed members was canvassed, in decreasing preference for current members, memberships lapsed in the calendar year, and lastly memberships that lapsed more than one year earlier. Altogether the membership doubled over the course of the campaign, about 75% of the new members being committed to Elizabeth May. We ran a complete GOTV on all committed supporters over the actual voting period, but when all was said and done, only 30% of the members voted, and only 35% of the EMay supporters actually cast a ballot. Mind you, these were supporters who renewed or purchased their first membership explicitly for the purpose of voting for Elizabeth May for leader. So you see what I mean when I say that actually motivating your supporters will be at least as important as recruiting them in the first place.
I am sure that every leadership campaign team is mulling over the same or similar thoughts right now. My guess is that some of the fossilized campaigns that are flush with cash will still be stuck in the past,planning hospitality suites, and schmooze fests at Barbeques over the summer months. Where you can look for the real game changers are from the less well-known candidates campaigns, where cash will be an issue from day 1. They will be obliged to embrace the actual facts that current members and delegates do not matter because it will take a very different type of campaign to win. There will be a lot of attention to policy development, and outreach to online communities of just about every shape and form. Liberal Bloggers: You are going to be wooed time and again! You are the gatekeepers to online traffic and search engine rankings. Expect Trippi’s book: ‘The Revolution will not be televised‘ to enjoy a brief new day in the sun. There will be a much bigger broadcast media component to those campaigns that can afford it. Systematic appeals to the general population will actually have a direct payoff in recruiting new supporters from the aether. The implications are boundless, and I can say with confidence that the Liberal Party is going to be transformed almost beyond recognition by the time we all get to eday sometime in April 2013. The political alchemists that wear the Liberals colours are going to be unleashed, and I can hardly wait to see what clever innovations they bring to bear on the Canadian electorate.