Harper’s campaign-crafter

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

With close ties to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, there are few people better suited to provide an analysis of the current political climate in Ottawa than Dr. Tom Flanagan.

A University of Calgary political science professor since 1968, Flanagan initially engaged in politics at the invitation of Preston Manning in 1991. Since that initial post as the Reform Party’s director of research, Flanagan has worked as an advisor for Harper with both the Canadian Alliance and the current Conservative Party, where he was campaign manager for the victorious run to 24 Sussex Drive. Flanagan’s recently published book, Harper’s Team, chronicles how a group of individuals with relatively little experience between them engineered such a success.

Though a student at the U of C while Flanagan was a professor, Harper–an economics major–never took courses from him. They met years later while both worked for the Reform Party.

“I was impressed with him,” said Flanagan. “I wouldn’t have immediately predicted he was going to become Prime Minister, but as soon as you started talking to him you realized this is a man with a superior intellect. He has an unusual gift for strategy. Politics is full of people who think they know where they want to go, but Harper is one of the few people who can actually figure out how to get there.”

It is on the strength of Harper’s image that Flanagan noted he feels the next conservative campaign must be built. The strategy used in the last election–running solely on an issuses-based platform–will no longer be effective for the Conservatives who, as sitting government, will be judged mostly by their record. As such, Flanagan felt a different approach must be adopted.

“Trying to emphasize leadership, the person of the Prime Minister,” he said. “Get voters to compare Stephan Dion versus Stephen Harper.”

Dion is one of the reasons that Flanagan feels the federal Liberal party is in trouble. They have raised only 22 per cent of the money that the Conservatives have in the first three quarters of this year, operating with a decrepit fundraising apparatus. New law came in a few years ago limiting the size of each donation parties could receive. The federal Liberals, whose fundraising during their long tenure in power was based mostly on large corporate donations, have yet to recover. Flanagan is not sure the problem is purely mechanistic, and feels it may not be conquered by the mere restructuring of fundraising apparatus.

“The leader’s a dud,” said Flanagan. “People won’t give to a party unless they support the leader. This leader is clearly turning off Liberals. I suspect that fundraising probably won’t pick up as long as Dion is [the leader]. They’ve got major financial troubles, the noose is tightening.”

Flanagan noted one of the major expenses for every campaign is media, eating 60 per cent of the budget.

“The media are essential for any modern campaign,” said Flanagan. “That’s the way you communicate with people. We distinguish between earned media and paid media. Earned media are what you get by creating news. Then you get coverage and it doesn’t cost anything.”

The leader’s tour, where the party leader travels via bus with about 30 staff members and 30 journalists, is the primary generator of earned media. In 2004, Flanagan noted, the Conservative party released their entire platform at the beginning of the race, resulting in a loss of media interest. Learning from this mistake they successfully employed a different method in 2006.

“We tried to release a different part of the platform each day, and that gave the journalists their story,” said Flanagan. “Campaign is like a dramatic performance. It should be scripted.”

The “War Room”–where this news is cooked up–is also charged with defending against attacks from other party’s and initiating attacks against those competitors. This is another way of earning media.

“Liberals accuse you of something, you put out a release to explain why that accusation is not well founded and you launch attacks on the other parties,” said Flanagan.

Flanagan mentioned that, though there are some reporters he is wary of, most are professional and try to keep their personal bias out of their work. It is in the newsroom that a problem arises, as the editors can change the slant of the story by cutting parts or moving them to the back pages, he explained. Headlines, too, are a powerful tool for editors to convey the message they want.

This problem is not present in paid media, a big part of all campaigns.

“Advertising is actually the most expensive part of a national campaign,” said Flanagan. “Almost all of which goes to television.”

Flanagan also commented on the provincial conservative party, noting that it let it’s campaign machinery atrophy in recent years–“vote for Ralph” being enough to win a majority. They are moving to fix this, though, and unlike the federal Liberals the leader does not render this a hopeless venture, said Flanagan.

Flanagan will not be participating in the next federal campaign.

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