So yesterday there was some `bad news` for Liberals in the media, naturally followed by further revelations and commentary today. Well I have news for you, it is not as big a deal as some would have us think.
As I have repeated many times, the real value of the Supporter category to the Liberal Party is that it makes it very easy for ordinary Canadians to declare an affinity to the Liberal Party, and provide the means to communicate for free, namely their email addresses. How many of them actually vote for the Leadership candidate of their choice, while a pressing issue for the candidates, is nowhere near as important as the bare fact of their entry into Liberalist database, with a few tidbits of data to tell us more about them. The important things for the Liberal Party moving forward will be firstly in finding another good excuse to draw Supporters into the Party now the Leadership recruiting drive is over. Secondly, and at this juncture in time the more pressing thing is to develop processes for engaging all those new contacts more deeply, and turning their declared affinity to the Liberals into a deeper commitment. In my opinion, the best tools for both these purposes are to reach out with policy messages, and calls to action that will engage supporters on a personal level. Ideally, this outreach will provide people with a means to DIALOGUE, perhaps through online policy formulation and discussion forums, or even a series of policy events, speeches etc that can draw the really committed in person. But I will put that off for a future post, as I have some pointed criticisms and observations to make.
Observation number one is that, as far as I am concerned, a Supporter is only a supporter when the means to register, and vote exist. In other words, the entire logic of harvesting supporters for the Liberal Party, and Liberalist, is that with an email address, and the self-declared affinity for the Liberal Party, the Party has a free means of communication. That is groovy, and will pay off in spades every single time a supporter clicks on a link in an email, or at the very least receives and acts on a GOTV email on some future election day. For the Leadership contestant the value of the supporter is as a prospective ballot in the upcoming vote. This is the what provides the incentive for the leadership campaigns to mobilise lots and lots of volunteers, network etc., and sign those supporters up. In past contests, the campaigns were selling memberships, so there was a monetary incentive that was shared by the Party and the leadership campaigns. While I love the supporter category because of it`s ease, simplicity and guaranteed means of cheap communication, there is no question that an actual membership fee, and the increased level of commitment to the Party that comes with it is of significant value to the Party. When I read the Trudeau team has signed up approximately 100,000 `supporters`without an email address, I scratched my head and asked myself`In what way are those supporters any better than a random voter whose vote has been identified in a regular election campaign?` I am afraid that for the candidate, they are far more important, but to the Party, they are no different really. There is absolutely no way that the Liberal Party should be dishing out very large amounts of money to send mail to that many people, solely for the purpose of having them vote in the leadership contest.
It actually bothers me to make that assertion. I spent some time volunteering at the Trudeau office in downtown Toronto, and I really do believe that Trudeau is the best leader for the Liberal Party, due to his ability to attract large numbers of people to swell the Party`s ranks. I am not spilling any secrets when I say that there were a significant number (very surprising actually) of people who did not have email addresses being tagged as supporters at the end of a phone call. Personally, I was very meticulous in securing, and verifying email addresses, but every time some sweet elderly lady from, say, Pictou told me she had never used a computer, I wondered why I was bothering to tag her as a supporter. Really, those contacts should have been asked to purchase a $10 membership, because the logic of the category is defeated when there is no electronic communications possible. Aside from those without email addresses, the volunteers were not always overly meticulous in recording, and verifying email addresses over the phone. As anybody who has worked in or managed a call centre environment can tell you, the data collected over the phone is always liberally sprinkled with errors from mis-hearing, or simple keyboarding errors. You have to ask for email address, then spell out and record it letter by letter, because if you do not, then a significant proportion of contacts will have incorrect email addresses entered into the system. I was pretty taken aback when I read yesterday that the Liberal Party was actually mailing stuff out to supporters to enable them to vote when there was no email address. Snail mail costs real money! There are printing costs, envelopes, and the actual postage to pay for. The time frames are just too short to realise a return in terms of people responding to the call to action, and then the call to action does not include asking for money to pay for the whole exercise! Notice I do not say that mail shots are worthless. They are not, when they are carefully targeted, a message painstakingly crafted, and designed to raise money, they can sometimes be very effective. In this instance though, NONE of those things are in place, so the money will be spent for an un-measurable return to the Liberal Party that is footing the bill.
OK, I have beaten that theme to death. Mail shots are expensive, and have to be carefully managed to yield funds, not consume them. In defence of the Liberal Party, the whole logic of the supporter category is foreign and new to the Liberal Party. It will take some time for the cost-benefit equation to be internalized, so I will not sit here, an armchair critic and hurl brickbats at those who made this error. It will not be the first time mistakes are made, and the experiment with unpaid `membership lite` supporters will inevitably contain many errors and successes to learn from. That is the key, learn from the errors, and do not repeat them in the future. The lessons to take home so far are: Supporters value = email addresses. Collecting and verifying that address is the most important thing for the Party in populating Liberalist with actionable data.
Now I am going to indulge in some speculation, and draw a surprising conclusion. The Trudeau campaign has just lost the lions share of those 170,000 odd supporters they claimed. Should the Party be footing the bill for mail shots to un-contactable supporters? I guess if that was their promise, then the Trudeau campaign was relying on them to stick to the deal, and the mail should go out. Forget for a moment if that is an error, or whose fault that is, and consider that the entire calculus of the front-runner has been overturned (in my mind anyway). The mail will go out, and based upon my past experience, PERHAPS 10% or 15% of the recipients will answer the call to action in time to secure the right to vote for the candidate of their choice. I doubt it will be that many. The response rate will depend on how well designed the call to action is, and it will depend far more on how many follow-up calls the Trudeau campaign can make between the dates people receive their mailer, and the response needs to be postmarked. Turn your thoughts instead to actual turnouts when the voting starts, and who shall take the crown.
I recently blogged about how effective the supporter category could be moving forward, if prospective supporters were being recruited based upon dearly held beliefs, rather than a vague affinity for a candidate or the Liberal Party. Any such recruit would not only self-identify with the Liberal party, and provide the means of free communications, but they would also provide a richer base of information about themselves. To whit, they would tell us the policy that they joined the Party to support, and it would almost certainly be something much dearer to their hearts than a simple and impulsive affinity. Any call to action directed to people based upon a dearly held belief is going to have a response several orders of magnitude stronger than the response of a generic supporter. I also recently blogged on how Joyce Murray has based her camapign on appealing to Canadians on several policy fronts. Most notably, she has enlisted several electoral reform organisations, that are PRIMARILY BASED ONLINE, those being, Leadnow, Fair Vote Canada, AZAAZ, and I believe other like-minded groups. I can tell you based upon my experience in the Green Party, that Democratic Reformers in Canada are probably the most earnest, zealous, and politically MOTIVATED people in Canada. They rank up their with the Conservatives abortion nut-clubs for dedication and motivation. (I apologise for the analogy there to all my democratic reform minded friends.) I do not actually know just how many supporters Joyce recruited from these sources, but she claims `tens of thousands`. The Trudeau Team claims about 70,000 supporters with email addresses, plus 100,000 sitting at home waiting for a letter until they can register. I think you can see where I am going with this.
There are TWO separate calls to action that really matter to the leadership contestants. The first step is to complete the registration to vote, and the second is to actually cast a ballot. As I said above, Joyce Murray has a small army of highly motivated supporters, who signed up as supporters for this express purpose. The response rates of Joyce`s supporters to both of these calls to action is going to be an order of magnitude stronger than that of the Trudeau supporters. Trudeau has a large army of supporters, who like him, some of them a whole lot. But the overwhelming edge I, and most other Canadians thought he enjoyed is actually 100,000 supporters lower than anticipated. Let us hypothesise that Joyce sheds 30% of her supporters from failing to register, and Trudeau sheds 60%. The odds just shortened dramatically. If the same thing happens in actual turnouts, it`s getting pretty damned close. Folks, I think that this contest has just become a real horse race, at least as far as raw numbers are concerned. The task for the Trudeau team is to carefully focus on those people waiting for their letter from the Liberal Party, with all their supporter registration info within. Even with all those phone banks cranking out calls, the Trudeau campaign does not have enough time to contact all 100,000 of them, so they are going to be focusing their efforts on all the ridings where their mail registered supporters equate to a majority of votes. For Joyce`s campaign, they shall be doing the same thing, with the important exception that they can walk their supporters through the registration process over the phone, with `ìnstant gratifcation` when the supporter clicks the last button online. When the ballots are being cast, once again, the ease of communications of a predominantly electronic communications channel will play out in Joyce`s favour. I will be VERY surprised if Trudeau’s supporters actually turn out in numbers exceeding 25% or so. That is not based on evidence I can share, but I have managed GOTV`s for this type of Leadership contest before when I was Ontario organiser, and ran Elizabeth Mays national canvas and GOTV for the leadership of the Green Party back in the day. I can tell you that hero worshiping acolytes do not vote in the numbers that hardened policy advocates do. That is not dissing Trudeau`s supporters, it is a straight observation of facts. On Balance, I think that the powerful Trudeau organisation will tip the balance by focusing on those mailed registrations in key ridings, but I seriously think that this is not going to be a cakewalk for anyone.