How to win an election: lessons from Canadian politics

Politics is a question of who we are as a society, and where we want to go. The role of a politician is widely perceived as a higher calling, attracting individuals willing to forego selfish personal interests in serving the greater good. Of course, to hold public office in a democratic state, one must win the election, which entails having the right strategy to ensure victory. Such a strategy can be dissected into six easy steps that transcend national boundaries.

First, on the campaign trail, the aspiring politician cannot dwell on such tedious distractions as actual policy detail. As former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell infamously stated during the 1993 federal election, “An election is no time to discuss serious issues.” This created a huge backlash among her political opponents and the media, who interpreted her claim as saying that Canadian voters were either too lazy or too ignorant (or, ideally, both) to comprehend real issues. Therefore, politicians must instead simplify complex issues, creating media-friendly sound bites for the consumption of apathetic voters and laid-back reporters in no hurry to fully investigate a story. Answering every question indirectly with vague responses, promising things like change, focussing on the issues, and helping working families, will ensure that little to no accidental alienation occurs. A perfect instance of this occurred in the Canadian 1993 federal campaign. Campbell’s opponent, Jean Chrétien, pledged to eliminate all new taxes that the Tories had introduced while still cutting the deficit and investing more in social programs. Obviously, this was not feasible, but by making all these promises to keep voters in all walks of life happy, the Liberals succeeded in building a broad base of voter support and winning a strong majority government. It is all in the message, after all, and politics is perception.

Second, it is decidedly ill-advised to annoy, anger, or otherwise upset your own voting base, much less constituencies you seek to make inroads with. Bob Rae’s experience as premiere of Ontario serves as excellent example of this lesson. When the NDP won the 1990 Ontario election, Rae was faced with a looming economic recession. He attempted to curtail the soaring deficit by creating “Rae Days”—mandatory unpaid holidays for public servants. This enraged the unions who constituted Rae’s strongest support base in the previous election. Rae attempted to explain the necessity of adopting these measures, but after a long, hard day’s work, the last thing fatigued, irritable, stressed citizens need to hear is a political aspirant on TV, outlining the reasons why their lives are only going to become more miserable. Naturally, Rae is now one of the more infamous politicians in Canadian public life. It is so much easier to tell voters exactly what they want to hear, especially in person, with their friendly neighbourhood politician. Hugging babies also helps. The public will directly correlate your ability to approach and feel comfortable around children with your ability to develop sensible policies.

Third, the aspiring politician must always uphold the highest standards in dignity, class, and sensitivity, especially towards society’s marginalized communities. When an opponent makes a politically incorrect remark, it is customary for one to display feigned indignation and mock seriousness, berating them for being so insensitive to the diverse needs of an inclusive society. When Toronto mayor Rob Ford made the statement that Asians “work like dogs”, he was castigated for perpetuating stereotypes and making a rude inference about the entire demographic. So, in the event that your opponent makes a verbal gaffe, you must seize the opportunity to cast doubt on their competence, not only as a leader, but as a human being. Politicians are not allowed to make mistakes, particularly during election time.

Fourth, no campaign could ever succeed without the loyal devotion of its prominent financial backers. This class of under-represented citizens must be rewarded for their strenuous efforts by receiving the juiciest posts in an incoming government. Patronage is just a term, after all, and quite malleable to the circumstance. For instance, patronage was one of the defining issues of the 1984 Canadian federal election. The new Liberal prime minster, John Turner, approved last-minute patronage appointments made by his immediate predecessor, Pierre Trudeau, which created a large public backlash just in time for the election. His Tory opponent, Brian Mulroney, slammed him for this, promising a cleaner administration in the event that his party won office. However, after returning the Tories to power, many in the party were eager for patronage posts of their own, and the need to reward people for their political loyalty overrode Mulroney’s previous campaign comment. Mulroney made just as many patronage appointments as Turner had, but that didn’t stop him from winning another majority at the next election.

Fifth, and most of all, the aspiring politician must never, ever, ever, under any imaginable circumstance, endorse a tax hike. Ever. Remember the strange case of Bush senior, who pledged during the 1988 presidential election that voters could be assured that he would not even consider raising taxes during his presidency, stating “read my lips: no new taxes”. But after taking office, he signed into law one of the largest tax increases in American history. Whether you were hearing-impaired or not. Sure enough, he went on to lose the next election by a whopping margin. Far more impolite language could be read on the lips of American voters.

Finally, should all else fail, vilifying your opponent is a trick that is almost guaranteed to work for the campaign. It may of course be misconstrued as “dirty politics”, but practitioners must assure themselves and the public that their actions are in the best interests of the nation. This rings especially true given the cataclysm that would befall the nation should one’s opponent somehow win. In the recent Toronto mayoral contest, George Smitherman portrayed himself as the “anybody but Ford” candidate, encouraging voters to support him simply because he is not Rob Ford. He maintained that if Ford won the election, a catastrophe would befall the city of Toronto, far worse than the likes of SARS or spoiled Alberta beef. This has made Smitherman go from a distant second place in the polls to being statistically tied with Ford. Thus, giving your opponent a catchy label such as liar, flip-flopper, Communist, or any combination of these, may very well stick over the course of a campaign and wreak havoc on the opposition.

In closing, if the political aspirant follows these six easy steps, a bright future in the political world is all but assured. This truly is democracy at its finest. May God bless it.

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