Stay-positive incumbency triumphs over negativity

This is what incumbent muscle looks like.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/10/2018 (1394 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This is what incumbent muscle looks like.

Gold balloons that spell your name and which herald “4 more years.” A generous deli buffet and an incredibly popular popcorn machine. An ornate downtown ballroom full of supporters, various celebrities, curious onlookers and a smattering of political opportunists skulking around hoping to get an opportunity to kiss the winner’s ring.

When Brian Bowman finally arrived at his campaign headquarters around 9:30 p.m. to celebrate his re-election, the magnitude was certainly evident: a 37,000-vote margin over his nearest competitor and a vote total (114,222) that was more than all seven other mayoral candidates combined.

After what seemed like an interminable campaign, where it was easy at several points to convince yourself that anything was possible, Bowman cruised to victory, even as Winnipeggers delivered a thunderous rebuke in a plebiscite of his efforts to bring pedestrians back to Portage and Main.

As convincing as the victory was, so too was the performance of Jenny Motkaluk, Bowman’s fiercest competitor.

The business consultant, who was making her second bid for elected office, won the support of more than 76,000 Winnipeggers. It wasn’t just an impressive showing for someone with no wins under her belt. It was a reminder that even though it is incredibly difficult to to defeat an incumbent mayor, all incumbent mayors still have to work hard to secure their re-election.

To the voting public, the contrast between the Bowman and Motkaluk campaigns could not have been more stark.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Brian Bowman and his family celebrate with supporters after his victory Wednesday.

Motkaluk assumed the posture of a tough-as-nails businesswoman who was going to clean up city hall once and for all. She came out swinging, hard and often, claiming that there was an untapped reservoir of anti-Bowman sentiment that was looking for a champion at city hall.

Bowman, on the other hand, was generally positive in his campaign. While Motkaluk was complaining about a crime-ridden core, raw sewage in rivers and crumbling infrastructure, Bowman talked about human rights, indigenous reconciliation and progressive urbanism.

It wasn’t that Bowman didn’t drop the gloves. There was an edgy undercurrent to his otherwise positive campaign, particularly when he repeatedly suggested that she was the second coming of former Mayor Sam Katz, who left office under clouds of controversy and suspicion about deals that may have been cut with his business associates and personal friends.

However, the contrast between the public faces of the two campaigns were nothing to compared to the stark differences in the behind-the-scenes machinations of both campaigns.

Motkaluk’s hard, quick start and edgy attacks on Bowman belied what was fast becoming a very two-dimensional message and limited resources to push it to the voting public.

It is more than a little ironic that one of Motkaluk’s earliest and most memorable attacks on Bowman was her suggestion that the incumbent mayor was having trouble raising money, largely because of his public battle with True North Chairman Mark Chipman over the deal to acquire a parcel of land on Carlton Street to complete the True North Square development.

Ironic because it appears quite likely that Bowman raised and spent more money than Motkaluk in this campaign.

Motkaluk’s relentless campaign announcements and diligent PR machine certainly earned her the majority of coverage in local news. There were days during the campaign when it seemed as if she was the only candidate in the race.

However, beyond those announcements and the accompanying media coverage, Motkaluk was at a significant disadvantage.

She used social media analytics, phone banks and good old-fashioned door knocking to assess her support and identify potential supporters. It was a viable strategy using very modern campaign tools. Bowman did all that, plus he was able to conduct two public opinion surveys, a much more expensive but also more a much more accurate snapshot of voter intentions.

Motkaluk unleashed sponsored social media and web advertising, direct mail and an intensive radio advertising campaign in the final weeks of the campaign. Bowman used most of the very same tools, but he was also able to buy valuable television ads that ran during the supper and evening news broadcasts on both CTV and CBC.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Jenny Motkaluk makes her concession speech after losing to Brian Bowman. Motkaluk earned about 35 per cent of the vote.

And then there was the issue of tone.

In making a commitment to go negative, Motkaluk was essentially targeting a narrower band of voters: older, suburban, less tolerant of change and outright hostile to the urbanist tendencies that defined Bowman.

Motkaluk’s wager was that these voters — less numerous but more likely to show up to vote — would be more than enough to counter Bowman’s core support. This is not a pie-in-the-sky strategy.

Voter turnout surged in 2014 when Bowman was first elected, and it was expected that fewer Winnipeggers would show up this time around, as is the case when an incumbent runs for re-election. That could have been a benefit for Motkaluk if she could somewhat discourage Bowman’s base.

Pointed criticism is a required element in any campaign looking to unseat an incumbent mayor. However, her attacks on Bowman seemed to be very personal. Her rhetoric often crossed line from political criticism to personal animus.

Now, negative campaigning can be quite effective, but not at building support for the candidate doing the attacking. Attack ads are most effective when they erode support for the candidate being attacked, and suppress the overall turnout.

About 20,000 fewer Winnipeggers voted in this election than voted in 2014. However, Bowman’s vote total went up by about 3,000 votes. Clearly, if the negative campaign had an impact on turnout, it was to discourage voters from coming out to support Motkaluk’s bare-knuckle politics.

Negative campaigning can be a potent political strategy. But in this election, with these candidates, it was no match for the power of incumbency.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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