Inside the Campaign: Managing Elections in Canada

By Lori Williams

edited by Alex Marland and Thierry Giasson
UBC Press
2020/$29.95/252 pp.

Anyone curious about the democratic experiment has noticed unprecedented developments in electoral politics. Negativity, fear-mongering and scandal have long been with us, but the 2019 federal campaign confronted Canadians with images of their prime minister in blackface and recordings of the opposition leader’s past remarks on same-sex marriage and abortion. Polling numbers plunged to historic lows for both frontrunners, and social media revelations derailed the campaigns of numerous candidates. Unexpectedly, climate change emerged as a central election issue.

Inside the Campaign reveals the intricate synchronization of various actors animating Canadian election campaigns. Against the backdrop of the 2019 federal election, scholars are paired in each chapter with experienced political and government practitioners in a collection of insightful examinations probing the inner workings of elections. This comprehensive portrait—by those closest to the forces that shape elections—demystifies the roles played by political operatives, the media, pollsters, the public service and actors working outside our party systems.

Several chapters, including one co-authored by long-time NDP strategist Anne McGrath and another co-authored by U of A associate professor Jared Wesley, amplify the role of political operatives—the specialists who pilot their party through the opportunities and obstacles of campaigns. These operatives include campaign and communications directors, senior advisers to the leader, platform policy developers, advertisers and fundraisers. The mercurial role of social media preoccupies these people in their quest to manage the image of their party and leader, with often contrasting results—such as that between the NDP’s navigation of voter discomfort around Jagmeet Singh’s faith (releasing a video of Singh wrapping his turban) and the Conservatives’ struggle with Andrew Scheer’s position on abortion and marriage rights. These examples illustrate how real-time decisions can turn liabilities into opportunities or knock a campaign off message. While informative, the book lacks input from Liberal operatives, leaving some of the most consequential strategies of the campaign unaddressed.

The interplay among media, pollsters and voters does get explored. One chapter highlights the role of media as watchdog—exposing disinformation, researching candidates and fact-checking parties and social media. Another examines how dwindling newsroom budgets have made individual polls less affordable, while the volume of data produced by polling firms has increased. This has led to the ascendance of poll aggregators who provide more “digestible” and often more reliable information, enabling candidates and parties to better respond to voters, and enriching media analysis.

The critical role of Canada’s public service in ensuring continuity of governance during and immediately following campaigns is also scrutinized—in various chapters explaining the roles of Elections Canada, government bureaucrats and leaders debate coordinators (a chapter co-authored by University of Calgary post-doc Brooks DeCillia). The hurdles faced by those with limited access to party-based resources—independent candidates and third-party advocacy groups—are traced in the collection’s final chapters. One, co-authored by independent candidate Jane Philpott, illustrates the difficulties of translating widespread national support into an individual constituency race. Despite a strong, high-profile political record, donations from across the country and the ability to represent issues unencumbered by party lines, Philpott was not able to concentrate enough support in her own riding to win.

In a climate of growing challenges to democratic integrity, understanding our electoral system is particularly important. This book’s strengths enhance public comprehension, and its gaps open pathways for further investigation.

—Lori Williams is an associate professor at Mount Royal University.

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