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How to win: Meet voters face-to-face

Elections coming, campaigning begins

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That sound you're hearing is the collision of two great Canadian traditions.

Summer and election campaigns.

Federal and provincial politicians (both incumbents and nominated candidates) have already begun their summer of campaigning; after the last council meeting on July 16, Winnipeg's elected officials, and those who seek to replace them, will similarly be unleashed on an unsuspecting, barbecuing, mosquito-slapping public.

With a civic election scheduled for this fall, a federal election that could come as early as next spring, and a provincial election the spring after that, this might be one of the schmooziest summers in recent memory.

How will the candidates woo us? If you listen to pundits and prognosticators, you will hear a lot about voting lists, phone banks, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and other technological tools. Much of what we know as modern campaigning is built around metadata, detailed voter-identification lists that include phone numbers, email, voting intentions and issue proclivity.

The federal Conservative party is masterful in using metadata. Its Constituency Information Management System, which includes all kinds of contact and profile information, has been wildly successful at identifying and tracking voters with Conservative tendencies. Powerful tools such as CIMS have been so successful, in fact, they have replaced good old-fashioned door-knocking and face time.

Why is that dangerous for aspiring politicians? Voter-mobilization surveys in Canada and the United States consistently show face-to-face contact is the best way of winning support.

That is really just a reflection of human nature: We are more likely to respond to a solicitation from a politician if it's done in person. Robocalls, pamphlets or emails may win some support, but nothing impresses like a firm handshake, a hearty smile and a few minutes of purposeful listening.

Face-to-face contact has become even more important as telephone landlines have become unreliable as a primary source of contact. According to Statistics Canada, more than one-third of Manitobans no longer maintain a landline. For those that still do, fewer answer calls from survey firms or political campaigns.

There is also the realization social media -- once thought to be a potent mobilization tool -- is not as persuasive as advocates had hoped.

Twitter and Facebook are effective at communicating with voters but that contact does not reliably translate into votes.

All this explains why some of the most successful politicians take a hybrid approach, combining new technology and traditional face time to build a brand and a base of support.

One of the most successful at doing that is Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a university professor and consultant, who won the 2010 civic election, beating more experienced politicians.

Nenshi was a master of social media who used Facebook and Twitter in particular to build his profile. However, those who celebrate Nenshi's dexterity with social media often forget to mention he also used a lot of face-to-face interaction to build his base.

Nenshi hosted dozens of coffee parties at the homes of key supporters. These volunteers would invite undecided or hostile voters to meet Nenshi in person. It was an uncontrolled, no-holds-barred forum where the oddly charismatic Nenshi won over the hearts of Calgarians literally one voter at a time.

Kevin Chief, minister of children and youth opportunities in Manitoba's NDP government, is also a prime example of a politician who mixed new technology with good old-fashioned hand-shaking, back-slapping politicking.

In the 2011 provincial election, Chief assembled a team of more than 300 active volunteers through a combination of a savvy online presence and intimate contact with constituents. In one of the safest NDP seats in Manitoba, he not only won handily but helped increase voter turnout by nearly 25 per cent. Chief raised more than $40,000 in campaign funds in one of the poorest ridings in the province.

Despite overwhelming evidence of the power of face time, not all politicians are smelling the coffee.

In 2011, the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives, for example, lost many close battles to the NDP in Winnipeg in large part because they relied too much on phone banks and technology while ignoring volunteers and face-to-face contact. The result of that tactical mistake was a massive increase in total votes and a loss of one seat overall.

During this summer, with so many elections on the horizon, you can bet there will be lots of campaign-related activity. Expect a flood of calls, pamphlets and door-knocking.

Voters will take into consideration many different factors when deciding who to vote for, or whether to vote at all. One thing to watch closely is the way politicians try to win your support.

There will be those politicians who literally mail or phone in their campaigns. Then there will be those who try to reach out to you through direct, personal contact.

The parties and politicians that undertake the latter strategy should do a whole lot better than the former.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2014 B2

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