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Campaign volunteers are crucial for the success of local federal candidates

Campaign volunteers are crucial for the success of local federal candidates. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Campaign volunteers are crucial for the success of local federal candidates. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/8/2015 (1687 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The day after the current federal election campaign was called, volunteers from Winnipeg South Conservative candidate Gordon Giesbrecht’s campaign arrived at a house in my neighbourhood to deliver a party lawn sign. This had the happy effect of alerting me to my neighbours’ partisan leanings — all the better to avoid any future social faux pas.

But this quick-off-the-mark response on the part of Giesbrecht’s volunteers also suggests that his is a well-staffed "grassroots army" of campaign volunteers, and that Giesbrecht will benefit from their efforts.

This may strike you as a surprising response. After all, aren’t Canadian elections all about national party leaders and national campaigns that spend money on national advertising campaigns and propose national policies, all of which are covered by national media outlets?

Against these nationalizing features of modern Canadian politics, what can humble local campaign volunteers like those dispatched by Giesbrecht really hope to achieve?

As it turns out, quite a bit. "All politics is local," remarked former U.S. House speaker Tip O’Neill, and his observation applies equally well to Canadian election campaigns.

For some time, political scientists have recognized that local candidates can help themselves by recruiting more campaign volunteers. An analysis of local Liberal campaigns in the 1988 election, for example, found that adding 100 additional volunteers in a campaign led (net of other factors) to a one per cent increase in the vote for that candidate.

This finding dovetails nicely with others demonstrating that the activities campaign volunteers engage in during election campaigns — door-knocking, delivering and dropping pamphlets, participating in get-out-the-vote activities, and the like — make a measurable difference in helping candidates clinch more votes.

One study of the 1998 U.S. elections, for example, explored the relative impact of different get-out-the-vote activities. The most successful method of encouraging turnout by far was personal canvassing. Neither mail nor phone calls could match the effect of face-to-face contact. And grassroots campaigns need substantial grassroots armies of local volunteers willing to knock on doors and stand on street corners in order to take advantage of this effect.

In a clever field experiment conducted in the U.S., researchers placed an election sign with a fictitious candidate’s name on a lawn along a busy road to a school. When parents were polled on their preferred candidates, nearly a quarter of the parents who drove past the sign selected the fictitious candidate among their top-three choices.

The experiment demonstrates how important name recognition can be in certain election campaigns. Campaign tools like lawn signs and pamphlets can play a role in increasing name recognition. And, as in Winnipeg South, candidates depend on volunteers to distribute and maintain those signs, and pass out pamphlets and other materials.

It’s important not to over-emphasize the importance of local campaigns. If a national leader and campaign tanks, it will be difficult for even the most well-staffed local campaign to make a difference. In the 1993 Canadian election, for example, scores of talented Tory candidates went down to defeat as a result of a disastrous national campaign.

Indeed, using survey evidence to explore the role of candidates when informing vote choice in Canadian elections, researchers found that the local candidate was a decisive consideration for about five per cent of voters in the 2000 Canadian election.

These all seem like small numbers — until one considers how competitive Canadian election campaigns have become in recent years.

Three MPs in Winnipeg alone (Joyce Bateman, Lawrence Toet, and Kevin Lamoureux) won their seats in the 2011 election with less than five per cent of the vote separating them from their next nearest competitors. The analysis above suggests that if those competitors could have marshaled more volunteers to assist in their campaigns, they could have brought themselves within striking distance of Bateman, Toet, and Lamoureux.

Further still: of the 308 seats in the 2011 election, no fewer than 50 saw the winning candidate win with less than five per cent of the vote. The Conservative majority government had only a 24-seat margin in the House of Commons.

The polls suggest that this election will be a much closer, tougher-fought election, with a minority government a real possibility. So it’s not an overstatement to say that the efforts of campaign volunteers in individual constituencies may play a decisive role in deciding which party will form government after this election campaign.

Some may be inclined to volunteer in a local campaign but hesitate because they doubt their doing so will make any difference for the outcome of the election. But we know that, even among the noise of national campaigning, advertising and reporting, the efforts of individual campaign volunteers in their own communities can often make a difference.


Royce Koop is an associate professor in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.


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