July 22, 2019

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Opinion

Bowman was able to grow

Winner's campaign progressed with technological sophistication while Judy W-L couldn't stop her support from eroding

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2014 (1734 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

No matter how you look at it, the proximity between the campaign headquarters for Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Brian Bowman is hard to explain.

The two offices are located on opposite sides of Portage Avenue, separated by about the length of a Canadian football field. This odd reality seems now to be such an obvious sign that these two candidates were destined to go head to head for the mayor's office.

In many ways, you could not have two more different candidates battling each other at the end: a political veteran of 14 campaigns looking for redemption for the 2010 failure; and a political neophyte dipping his toe for the first time into electoral waters.

Two very different candidates, with two very different campaigns.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2014 (1734 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

No matter how you look at it, the proximity between the campaign headquarters for Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Brian Bowman is hard to explain.

The two offices are located on opposite sides of Portage Avenue, separated by about the length of a Canadian football field. This odd reality seems now to be such an obvious sign that these two candidates were destined to go head to head for the mayor's office.

In many ways, you could not have two more different candidates battling each other at the end: a political veteran of 14 campaigns looking for redemption for the 2010 failure; and a political neophyte dipping his toe for the first time into electoral waters.

Two very different candidates, with two very different campaigns.

 

— — —

Notwithstanding the thrashing she suffered in 2010, Wasylycia-Leis was fairly certain she wanted another shot at city hall. Throughout her political career, she had forged a reputation as a scrapper. Hardly anyone who knew her thought she would go out with a loss.

Wasylycia-Leis's big concern was whether she could convince the people who had supported her to join the fight again. There were lingering concerns among her supporters her campaign had been poorly planned and executed. That policy was drafted too hastily. That's when Katz went negative — suggesting in a now-infamous Robocall seniors would lose their homes if her property-tax hike went into effect — she did not know how to respond. For the most part, Wasylycia-Leis agreed.

"We weren't prepared to defend our tax proposal back then," she said. "We didn't explain it properly. We were late to the game figuring out a response."

Wasylycia-Leis's concerns about her ability to draw support continued until the fall of 2013, when she had coffee with former NDP communicator Peter Dalla-Vicenza. "I had, honestly, been getting mixed reactions from folks. That I had given it a good shot but that it might be time to move on," she said. "Peter told me that if I ran, the support would be there. That was the encouragement I needed."

With the support of key advisers, Wasylycia-Leis laid the groundwork for the campaign she wished she'd run in 2010. Many of the same key advisers returned to help her again, along with some new faces. There was a renewed commitment to more thoughtful policies, better ground-level organization, and a central message that would become her mantra: "A City that Works."

NDP cabinet minister and long-time friend Gord Mackintosh was credited with coming up with that slogan, around which Wasylycia-Leis's team built a platform of modest, practical, low-cost pledges that touched on a shopping list of basic issues: safety, accountability, and, particularly, infrastructure.

Early on, the strategy seemed to work. Based largely on name recognition, Wasylycia-Leis became the favourite from the outset of the campaign. Up until the last two weeks of the campaign, she seemed to have an unassailable base of support.

That is not to say there weren't rough spots. Wasylycia-Leis struggled when it became clear she did not know financing for the second phase of bus rapid transit was not in place. Similarly, she struggled throughout the campaign when asked whether she, as a life-long New Democrat, could push the city's agenda with the NDP provincial government. These issues once again revealed how easily flustered Wasylycia-Leis can be when the heat is on.

———

It's hardly what you'd call a winning strategy for electoral politics.

A novice candidate, a campaign team built around people with mostly low-level experience in organized politics, and a complete absence of voter data.

Oh, and an insistence that none of the big political parties be approached for organizational support or information.

And yet, that was the inception of the Brian Bowman campaign.

The disadvantage Bowman faced was that, afraid to borrow too heavily from partisan political machinery, he and his core advisers had little experience and no legacy voter identification data.

Judy Wasylycia-Leis makes her way through her crowd of supporters to the stage to give her concession speech after losing to Brian Bowman in her bid to become Winnipeg's 43rd mayor.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Judy Wasylycia-Leis makes her way through her crowd of supporters to the stage to give her concession speech after losing to Brian Bowman in her bid to become Winnipeg's 43rd mayor.

"The easy thing would have been to go to the federal or provincial Tories and Liberals and say, 'We need your machine.' That was, in my mind, a huge risk because we know we'd end up having to defend ourselves for doing that. That was what Judy was doing with the NDP machine. I didn't want that," Bowman said.

So, rather than forge those "deals with the devil" and access information from other parties, he and his team built a campaign machine from scratch.

Bowman's campaign reached out to people who had worked on the campaigns of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson — the poster boys for new age civic campaigning — for advice on how to broaden support and mine voter data.

Eventually, Bowman's team, led by engineer Jason Fuith, integrated open-source data management tools with their own mobile app to track voter identification using GPS and allow volunteers to communicate in real time. Finally, the campaign intensively employed automated telephone voter identification.

The data from all these sources, along with detailed social media activity, was then subjected to intense analytics to assess the impact of campaign announcements and the evolving sentiments of voters. Eventually, all this combined to build what is arguably one of the most technologically sophisticated campaigns seen at any level of politics in this province.

It would have been easy to just fall back on all that data and use it to formulate policy announcements. However, Bowman paid careful attention to the experience of politicians like Nenshi, who used new-age social media and more traditional campaign tactics like face-to-face meetings with voters.

It was quite clear early on in the campaign that despite his community activities, not a lot of Winnipeggers knew Bowman. In early polls, he barely registered. Even by late summer, with the campaign well under way, Bowman showed little momentum.

While the campaign unfolded, Bowman said he was determined to get out and meet voters face-to-face. As a result, he decided to match Wasylycia-Leis by attending every debate and mayoral forum. Starting in the spring, he sought out every neighborhood carnival, cultural celebration and ethnic gathering for a chance to raise his profile.

In the age of instantaneous social media interaction, all that face time may seem pointless. But even new-age political superstars like Nenshi — who convened dozens of coffee parties with key community opinion leaders during his first campaign — continue to stress the importance of face time.

"All that technology doesn't eliminate the need to go out and meet people," Bowman said. "We were patently aware throughout this campaign that this is still all about ground game."

— — —

Typically, when you have a close two-way political race, you will be able to point to a critical moment when someone did something really wrong, or really right, thus determining the outcome. This was not a typical election.

In large part, this was a frenetic mayoral campaign featuring, at one time, nine candidates that eventually became a battle between two very different but very competent campaigns.

While the lesser candidates struggled with both brand and message, Wasylycia-Leis and Bowman remained consistent in terms of what they communicated to voters.

Then what, you may ask, became the determining factor?

All through the campaign, as Wasylycia-Leis's support began to slowly erode, it became clear she was not going to be able to rely on the profound split of centre-right support that had helped her establish early, commanding leads in popular support.

Gord Steeves, who had tried to goad other centre-right candidates into dropping out of the race to give him a shot at a head-to-head battle with Wasylycia-Leis, simply imploded. He did not drop out, but the results Wednesday night were so bad, it was almost as if he had.

Bowman clearly drew a lot of that support. But Bowman's campaign was tracking movement in voter support and was clearly picking up support from Wasylycia-Leis's base.

This scenario fulfilled the worst fears centre-left voters had about Wasylycia-Leis going back to 2010. At that time, the concern was that the former NDP MP and MLA had too much partisan baggage to build a true big tent of support, essential for anyone to win a mayoral election.

Bowman, on the other hand, was able to build his support as his overall profile grew. It means, as well, attempts to pigeon-hole Bowman as a right-wing, business-friendly candidate are mostly invalid. His landslide victory showed, at least as far as voters are concerned, his appeal crosses over political and partisan boundaries.

In the final analysis, this election is a story about two credible, capable candidates and two pretty solid campaigns. The result was less a matter of errors, and more due to the potential of the two candidates.

It is a reminder that election campaigns do matter, and that political experience is as much a curse as it is a blessing.

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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Updated on Thursday, October 23, 2014 at 7:50 AM CDT: Adds videos

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