Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Manitoba Liberal campaign is a hot mess. Here's why. #mbpoli

In a campaign where one of the most unpopular governments in modern history is running for re-election, the Manitoba Liberals under leader Rana Bokhari are sure trying their darnedest to fail at capitalizing on that fact.

I have been involved and followed campaigns for eight years now, so I feel I can reliably say that the current campaign being run by the Liberals is one of the worst I've seen.

Poor vetting of candidates started off the crisis, with social media gaffes, candidates disqualified for violating election laws, candidates saying stupid things, and just fresh off the presses, a standing candidate who was allowed to run despite a 2002 conviction for assault.

Add on top of that the fact that the party failed to organize a full slate of candidates in the election, running only in 52 out of 57 constituencies, and I know that at least two prospective candidates didn't gain enough signatures to get on the ballot in time. This is not a simple issue to brush off - Bokhari insisted she would run a full slate yet failed to, despite having momentum from the federal win and having ample time to get candidates in place (the election date was well known in advance). It speaks to the lack of organization and internal momentum within the campaign, a damning enough concern without noting that the supposedly worse off NDP easily found a full slate, including some star candidates.

Worst. Platform. Ever.

Then there is the platform and the messaging that goes with it. This is probably the worst of it, and only partly because it reinforces the theme of the Liberals flailing about without cause.

"Its time for meaningful change" and "Believe in a better Manitoba" are nice sounding slogans, but they have to be backed up by something. The Liberal platform amounts to a pot luck of costly promises (some of them repeated multiple times). While, sure, they're generally all positive, they fail to form a coherent message of where the party wants to take Manitoba.

Compare and contrast the Liberal's hefty bag of policies and meaningless message of change versus the open but strict message of the NDP ("because everyone matters") and the fluffy but direct message of the PCs ("Better Plan. Better Manitoba.").

Bokhari's Liberals are trying, and failing, to mimic the federal party's campaign last October, I get it. Except "Real change" worked because the federal NDP played into the narrative. However the PCs, competing for the anti-NDP vote with the Liberals, are not. There is a lot of difference between the messages you get from "Real Change" and "Change that's ready." Not so much between "Time for meaningful change" and "Better Plan. Better Manitoba." Both basically refer to the same concept of better governance, except one simply sounds better.

Circling back, the veritable buffet of partially costed Liberal policies does not speak to "meaningful change" in any specific way. The federal Liberals stuck to core messaging - just glance at the 2015 platform and you'll get it right away- while the Manitoba Liberals are doing the exact opposite, with a scattershot approach, picking and choosing little tidbits of policies, practical or not, to put out there but with zero heft behind them.

Ask yourselves when browsing the Liberal's platform: who are they trying to target? Who is this message of "meaningful change" supposed to resonate with? Where is the quick pitch that sums up Bokhari's vision in 15 seconds or less? You'll see what I mean.

Again, I'm not saying the policies are bad... or are they? The NDP have made a point to pounce on some of the controversial or odd policies put forward by the party (plus the gaffes), and the proposed fiscal platform has not gained a lot of fans. The NDP are looking for any advantage they can get to stay alive, and while their criticisms may not hold water in reality, it matters little if your poor messaging can't counter that narrative.

At the end of the day, their policies lack direction and they're basically broadcasting their message into the void with the hope someone picks it up. And if so far you have no bites, don't you think its time to change how you're putting your message out there?

Where are the ads? Where is the money?

Part of the problem may be the fact that the Liberal Party has barely any money. It managed an anemic $220,000 haul in 2015, compared to the NDP's $736,000 and the whopping $1.7-million garnered by the PCs in 2014 (their 2015 returns aren't filed yet). 2015 was the best year for the party in a long time as well - but its a far cry from the amount needed to run an effective campaign, or certainly does not speak to any momentum the party wishes it had.

Why do political contributions matter? Simple: to run an effective campaign in Manitoba, I would say a party needs at least $1-million in the bank. For examples, the PCs spent over $1.4-million and the NDP $1.3-million in 2011, while the Liberals spent about $179K. Guessing based on the numbers so far, I think the Liberals will maybe spend about the same this year, with a maximum of $250K.

The bigger kick? In 2011, both the NDP and PCs spent more on far more on media advertising alone than the Liberals may spend for their entire campaign this year, with the PCs spending $718K and the NDP $653K, while the Liberals put up just $107K worth of advertising.

Include in other campaign expenses plus transfers to constituencies and salaries for party workers, and there is no way the Bokhari Liberals are going to compete with the NDP, let alone the PCs, in running an effective campaign.

Lack of competitive fundraising means only one thing, though: not many are interested in hearing what Bokhari or her candidates have to say.

A missed opportunity

Yes, it is a vicious circle - can't get your message out because you have no money, can't raise money because you can't get your message out, etc. - and I don't expect the Liberals to break out of in normal circumstances, but this is not a normal election.

The NDP are collapsing before everyone's eyes, and there is an obvious opening for the Liberals as a replacement on the centre-left-to-centre of the spectrum. Yet their scattershot messaging and poor organizational skills have led to stagnation at best.

They remain locked at 20-25% with the NDP with no clear breakout opportunity in the future, save the leaders debate, but Selinger and Pallister are experienced politicians and while Bokhari can definitely hold her own - you can listen/watch to some clips here of the leader's radio debate back in March - they're not likely to make any major gaffes to give her an opening. I don't know if her charm alone would be enough to gain momentum, certainly hasn't been the case so far.

Polling worse than it seems

Actually, her charm is probably more in doubt than I seem to think. Brian Pallister is not loved by the people, with a 35/34 approval/disapproval according to the last Forum poll, but Bokhari is in the negatives with numbers at 21/36 in the same poll. Not even her own party's supporters give her all that great a rating, with 46/14 but 40% "don't knows." Both Pallister and Selinger, among their party's supporters, earn marks near 60% approval. In the same poll, Bokhari only gets the nod of 10% as to the "Best Premier" question, behind Selinger.

Which all leads to an idea which I admit is my own, but I feel is correct: the Liberals may sit tied with the NDP right now, but no one is very committed to sticking with them. Many may choose to vote NDP or PC come election day, given that the Liberals have offered little but a brand and, uh, "meaningful change" or something.

That means come April 19th, I suspect the Liberal numbers to tank, maybe down to 15% or lower. I think it will benefit the NDP more but its hard to say, regardless of who it goes to though, all those wonderful seat opportunities will go flying out the window. My stated opinion is that Jon Gerrard will continue to be the sole Liberal MLA in the Legislature, at least based on what I've seen so far.

Again, it's my personal view and speculation this far out is pretty useless, but I just have a feeling that if the election were held today, the Liberals (and pollsters) would be in for a shock. For the record though, polling on the issue of "voting strength" per party says I'm wrong.

So what's to be done?

Manitoba deserves a strong Liberal Party, and it does not have that right now. This is an issue that needs to be rectified.

But what we've seen so far is not going to cut it. I'm sorry, Manitoba Liberal fans and candidates, but right now I believe your party is heading for a defeat far worse than what the polls are saying. You have no money, you have no coherent message, and your leader is unknown to most and not liked by those who do know her. Right now you're riding on the coattails of the federal party and the utter hatred Manitobans seem to have for the Selinger NDP.

Maybe that will be enough, and maybe Bokhari and the many fantastic candidates running for the party will pull off an upset. They won't, but maybe.

Things need to change. Messaging needs to be tightened up. What are the anxieties of Manitobans? Are they worried about jobs, healthcare, cuts? Focus on that and drill down on those issues hard, with three or five main platform points that address those concerns in big, bold, beautiful red and/or white lettering. The beautiful thing about having good, targeted messaging as well is that you don't need a lot of money to develop it - just slap it over your site and your literature and let the momentum build that way.

Listen, you're not likely to defeat Brian Pallister's PCs. He has this basically locked up, and while he isn't popular, the vast movement to oust Selinger is working in his favour. But you can eat into his majority and you can take advantage of the NDP's failings yourselves, just step up! Its not too late to salvage this.

And frankly, if you can't or won't, and refuse to recognize any of the points I've made here as valid criticisms, then just step aside. At least the NDP has a shot at retaining a strong opposition.

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