Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lessons from Naheed

Generally speaking, the rest of Canada treats Alberta politics as nothing more than a punch line:

"Calgary: If you don't like the weather, wait 40 minutes. If you don't like the government, wait 40 years".

"The Alberta government is considering adding 'Liberals' to the endangered species list".

That sort of stuff.

Because of that, no one in Ontario would dare use an Alberta election as a case study of anything other than political silliness. And you won't see many gushing articles on "the genius of Naheed Nenshi" the same way you will about "the genius of Rob Ford" (Ford has promised lower taxes and played to the suburbs, where all the voters live. It's genius! What political mastermind could ever have thought of that!).

But there's a lot the rest of Canada can learn from last night's stunner in Calgary.

1. Social media matters: I've always had my doubts about the usefulness of social media in general elections. Yeah, yeah, you need to do it so the media includes you in their story about what the kids these days are blogging on the Tweeter and the Facebooks, but I've always been skeptical about how many votes it actually moves.

In this case, I would argue it made all the difference. Intentionally or not, the Nenshi campaign has become the best example I've seen of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point theory applied to politics. The simple version of Gladwell's argument is this:

A. For an epidemic, attitude or idea to take off, it must first gain traction among mavens, the "information brokers" of society. Obviously enough, most Calgarians weren't following mayoral candidates on Twitter this July - especially ones as obscure as Naheed Nenshi. But information brokers - the media and politicos - were. Because of this, Nenshi was able to use social media to solidify himself as the de facto "third" candidate in this race, over more recognizable faces like Kent Hehr, Wayne Stewart or Bob Hawkesworth.

B. Once an idea sets in, the connectors need to spread it. Ten thousand supporters on Facebook is impressive, but it's just 1% of the City of Calgary. However, when those 10,000 supporters start posting stories about Naheed on their Facebook page to be seen by their hundreds of friends...you start to reach a critical mass. That's why things tipped so suddenly in Nenshi's favour over the course of two or three weeks.

The real success of Nenshi's social media campaign was that it broke free of the political echo chamber. To have a tangible impact, you need to reach the non-political crowd...the kind of people who will actually change their mind based on a news story or video they see online. So the Nenshi campaign reached out to the non-political, spreading their message to places like hockey forums and online discussion boards.

The proof that Nenshi broke free of the political bubble are those 10,000 Facebook supporters - an impressive figure when you consider that Harper and Ignatieff only have 3 times that number despite having 30 times the electorate to work with.

2. Polls matter: More than ever before, polls are driving the narrative. The early buzz was all about McIver and Higgins, with Nenshi an afterthought, caught in a pack of 10 legitimate candidates grasping for air.

Then one poll showed him at 8%. Factor in the margin of error on a small sample poll where most respondents are undecided, and he was basically in Oscar Fech territory. But suddenly, Mr. 8% was seen as a the "leader of the pack" and began getting attention accordingly. With each new poll, words like "momentum" and "surging" were used to describe him.

Then, we had the real election game changer: A Leger poll with a week to go showing McIver at 32%, Higgins at 30%, and Nenshi at 30%.

Maybe those numbers were accurate, maybe Nenshi was already in first, maybe he was stuck in the mid-20s. We don't know. We do know that if the poll had shown him in the low-to-mid 20s, say 8 or 10 points back of Barb Higgins, it's a whole different ballgame, with Nenshi voters jumping to Higgins instead of the reverse.

3. Policy Matters: Not so much the policies themselves, but the perception of having policies.

Though Naheed might disagree with me, I'm willing to bet if you stopped Calgarians as they exited the voting booths, most of them couldn't name you a single one of Nenshi's policies. Sure, they'd tell you he was going to improve transit, they'd tell you he had a great vision for an inclusive city, they'd tell you he had lots of ideas about accountability. But press them for specifics and they'd be grasping for answers like Barb Higgins on a breakfast TV interview.

Yet at the same time, if you asked voters which candidate had the best policies, they'd all say Nenshi. After all, he's the guy who memorizes neighbourhood density statistics the way sports junkies know how many goals their favourite hockey players scored last year. Nenshi was releasing policies and his image was of "the policy guy", so everyone assumed he had a plan.

That was the idea behind the Liberal red book in 1993. No one ever read the red book, but knowing it was there projected the imagine that there was a plan and a vision.

Talking to non-political Calgarians I know, their biggest complaint with Higgins was that they didn't know what she stood for. These same people didn't really know what exactly Nenshi stood for but they knew he stood for something.

Which was more than could be said about his opponents.

4. Release your platform early to define yourself: Nenshi jumped out of the gate, releasing policy throughout the summer, when only the "mavens" were paying attention. When you lack name recognition, you need to do this to define yourself - and even when you have name recognition, it's not a bad idea.

Everyone knew about the common sense revolution before the 1995 Ontario election. In 2005, Stephen Harper released his platform before Christmas, while the Liberals were off caroling. In the current Toronto election, Rob Ford defined himself early on by repeating the words "gravy train" twenty times a day.

Even if the general public isn't paying attention, it's important to define yourself early, so that when they do tune in, they know what you're all about.

5. Front runners cannot afford to be complacent. We've seen this happen time and time again - in leadership races and general elections. This race had two complacent front runners, trying to out complacency each other. So the electorate found someone else to vote for.

6. Religion doesn't matter in Canada: Did you know Nenshi was Muslim? You probably didn't until today. It wasn't an issue.

7. Political affiliation doesn't matter municipally: As the saying goes, snow removal isn't a right wing or left wing issue. After 20 years of openly Liberal mayors, Calgarians picked the progressive option over the conservative or the Rod Love approved candidate.

8. Be Yourself: Naheed's a geeky policy wonk. He didn't pretend to be anything else.

9. Present a positive vision, but attack when necessary. Nenshi released scathing editorials on his opponents throughout the campaign, but he always attacked them on policy by explaining why their ideas were wrong...and followed it up with what he'd do better. It's a simple way to construct an attack, and it's almost always the most effective.

Unless, of course, your opponent kicks children in the face. Then you can have at them!

What others are saying...
DJ Kelly looks at the new City Council
The Commons recaps the day that was
Don Martin on Cowtown's new image
Kevin Libin on how Nenshi won
Labrador shows us the electoral map - Nenshi cleans up downtown and did quite well in the west and north

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