Understanding (Canadian) Electioneering

Tom Flanagan’s Winning Power is an impressive piece of writing because it combines academic research with practical knowledge of campaigning. Flanagan worked for a variety of “Conservative” parties as well as being a professor which has given him great experience to draw upon.

Flanagan gives a clear and cogent view of positioning in Canadian political marketing. He neatly explains the problem of the Canadian centre-left and the battle between the NDP and Liberals to be the main rival to the Conservatives. This struggle is now playing out fascinatingly in the current election campaign.

He notes the usefulness of emotions in political decisions. “To some, it may seem irrational that emotion plays such a large role in campaigning.” (Flanagan, 2014, page 21). But as Flanagan correctly says “… distinguished philosophers and scientists have seen emotion as essential to human decision-making…” (Flanagan, 214, page 22). I agree that just because campaigns use emotions in their messaging and voters use emotions in their decision making doesn’t mean that they are doing something wrong.

One important lesson is for those of us with experience of politics. We shouldn’t assume that we think about issues the same way as do swing voters. “Party strategists cannot afford to trust their own intuitions because they are not typical of the people they are trying to attract” (Flanagan, 2104, page 80). Many a campaign has failed because everyone thought their ideas were clearly superior to the opposition’s ideas and so didn’t work hard enough to connect with swing voters.

Much of the book is a discussion of the 2012 Alberta elections. The problem facing the Liberals was especially interesting. The Liberals chose to attack the Wildrose party as right-wing extremists. Flanagan said that this drove Liberal voters to vote Conservative to stop Wildrose. This hurt Wildrose but hurt the Liberals even more in the province where they sunk to a distant third. Political campaigns, especially in a Canadian context where there are often more than two serious contenders, can have some fascinating dynamics.

Read: Tom Flanagan (2014) Winning Power: Canadian Campaigning in the Twenty-First Century, McGill-Queen’s University Press