It is often said, there is no politics without power. But campaigning during a pandemic has delivered a much stronger message – there is no politics without people. Or at least, it becomes a different kind of politics. Without innovative new ways to navigate what will likely be a new normal with smaller crowds, and less in-person engagement, parties run the risk of losing their connection with people and in turn, losing their ability to win.
People make campaigning personal and meaningful. People need to see how their leaders behave in uncontrolled situations, like on a doorstep or in a coffee shop. People want to know the person they’re voting for is accessible and listening. Now more than ever, campaigns, strategists and the consultants who advise them will need to utilize cutting-edge ideas and tools to engage. A campaign will be hard-pressed to find many Canadians who willingly want to sit in front of their screens for yet another ‘virtual event’.
Campaigning during a pandemic has taught us that instant feedback matters. When a party leader walks into an empty studio rather than a crowded community hall or local park to deliver a campaign announcement, there’s no one there to let the candidate know their message has landed or is even resonating. No applause or cheering. The quiet of a pandemic campaign is unsettling and challenging for even the most seasoned politician. The lack of energy in a near-empty room makes it hard to conjure up that excitement needed to nail that message delivery or to know if the message has completely flopped.
This was certainly the case in British Columbia with last fall’s provincial election. The province was well into the second wave of COVID-19, and a snap election call by Premier John Horgan meant the parties were pandemic campaigning, ready or not. With no media bus doing a cross-province tour, coordinating coverage was a huge challenge. Getting British Columbians to even pay attention to the campaign in general was a whole other hurdle. If a party’s base wasn’t engaged already, there was hardly a chance even the most seasoned campaigner was going to capture the attention of a scared and exhausted population. Early and consistent engagement matters now more than ever.
In Saskatchewan, the scene was similar. People were reluctant to come to the door to meet a candidate, and if they did answer the door, the conversation consisted of a brief exchange through a mask from six feet away. Volunteers were scarce. People weren’t interested in door knocking or calling phone lists when they’re worried about their health, their families, and their jobs. Seniors were also disproportionately impacted. Campaigns couldn’t go through the front door at long term care facilities or seniors’ homes, and many seniors who depend on volunteers to drive them to the polls on election day simply didn’t have that option.
Time is now currency. People don’t want to spend their time unless it’s in a way that’s meaningful to them. Upcoming campaigns that want to be successful will constantly be asking themselves: how do we catch attention and cut through the ever-increasing noise on Canadian’s daily feeds? Do we take the risk of attending an in-person event in a province that has little to no restrictions and risk negative blowback from people provinces still working through reopening phases?
As we’ve summarized above from previous pandemic campaign experience, without people – it’s not really politics – at least not politics as we’ve come to know it. The engagement just isn’t there and it simply becomes transactional. It’s been a long and challenging 18 months for Canadians, and while businesses, restaurants and other industries are moving forward in new ways, political parties will need to do the same. Going forward, the new and innovative ways parties and campaigns bring people back in, both in person and digitally, will likely be the indicator of their ability to win.