This article describes the
use of technology in the successful campaign of Stephen Harper to become leader
of the Canadian Alliance. Of course, there is much more to a campaign
than technology. Candidates travel almost non-stop meeting and speaking
to thousands of party members. The mass media has a role in forming
opinions about candidates. Nevertheless the author argues that database
technology can be decisive in determining the winner.
For more than two centuries,
information technology has steadily reshaped the way politics is conducted.
Members of Parliament were originally elected by public ballot at small
meetings held on the village green or in the local tavern. The progress
of print technology in the nineteenth century made universal suffrage workable,
once newspapers, pamphlets, and posters could carry political information to a
mass audience. The trend toward mass media intensified in the twentieth
century as the rise of radio and television made it possible to address huge
audiences with little or no time delay.
A somewhat different trend,
however, emerged towards the end of the twentieth century, as the electronic
computer once again revolutionized communications technology. Using
inexpensive personal computers and database software, it became possible to
address large numbers of people and to keep track of their preferences as individuals.
The result was to restore some of the characteristics of face-to-face politics
through the impersonal but individualized media of direct mail, phone banks,
Internet surveys, and e-mail and fax blast outs.
Each of these innovations in
communications technology has supplemented rather than replaced its forebears.
As a consequence, anyone doing politics today has to integrate a wide
variety of communications channels ranging from face-to-face contact, through
print and electronic publication, to the most update manifestations of database
technology. In such a complex situation, there is no single right way to
do things. Rather, the combination of media chosen will depend on the
nature of the contest and the resources available to the contestants.
Rules and Resources
The Canadian Alliance
leadership campaign was a one-person, one-vote contest, in which every
registered party member had the right to vote through a mail ballot. The
Alliance leadership contest rules made no attempt to weight constituencies
equally; rather, they weighted members equally. Unlike Liberal and
Progressive Conservative leadership races, four thousand votes in the constituency
of Red Deer were worth no more and no less than the sum of 400 votes in 10
different ridings. Such rules put a premium on communications media that
could reach people as individuals, rather than deal with them as bunches in
ridings. Paid advertising was too expensive to use because the party’s
members were spread fairly evenly across the vast area of Ontario and the four
western provinces, with a much smaller number in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
We had to put information in members’ hands or speak to them individually
if we hoped to capture their allegiance. Our resource constraint was that
we had very little money when the campaign began, so we had to find a
communications strategy that did not involve large upfront costs and would
generate revenue as we went along.
In the so-called “Draft
Harper” phase of the campaign (August-November 2001), Stephen Harper travelled,
met people, and used the telephone to ask for personal and financial support.
We sent out some letters and put up a website, which brought in a few
donations and offers to work on the campaign; but this was a minimal use of
Everything changed in early
December, when he officially registered as a candidate. Paying the
$25,000 deposit and meeting certain other requirements gave us access to the
Canadian Alliance membership database, which, under the circumstances, was the
equivalent of an Elections Canada voters list in a general election. The
party’s database contained about 300,000 names, including anyone who had ever
been a member since the foundation of the Reform Party in 1987. Of these,
about 70,000 were current members as of December 2001. The database
contained phone numbers and mailing addresses, which were generally reliable for
recent members but became less reliable the longer the date since the last
renewal. In a small but still useful percentage of instances, the
database also contained fax numbers and/or e-mail addresses.
Our first and urgent need was
to raise money to finance the rest of the campaign. We began, therefore,
by sending a direct mail piece to the 70,000 current members, asking for their
financial support. This and subsequent mailings set up a stream of income
that funded the campaign adequately. In the end, we raised about $1.1
million from 9500 donors, for an average donation of $116. Some donations
came at rallies, or at special dinners, luncheons, and receptions, or over the
Internet, but by far the largest share resulted from our direct mail program.
Once it was obvious that
direct mail was working for us, we sent out a second wave of letters to lapsed
members, urging them to rejoin the party to vote for Stephen Harper, and, of
course, to give money to support the campaign. Here we had to make a
strategic choice because the list of lapsed members was too large to mail
everyone on it. We chose not to approach at this time the very large
number of names (over 100,000) who had joined in 2000 at the formation of the
Canadian Alliance but had not renewed their membership in 2001. Rightly
or wrongly, we assumed that these potential voters would be less receptive to
our message of revitalizing the Canadian Alliance but might be more receptive
to other candidates who were at the time emphasizing cooperation or merger with
the Progressive Conservatives. Instead, we went after people who had
joined the Reform Party before 2000 but had now let their membership lapse.
(We did not bother with people who had not renewed since 1995 or earlier,
believing that too many of them would have died, moved, or lost interest to
make a mailing worthwhile.) That still left us with a list of about
90,000 names for the second wave.
This second wave was also a
great success. It not only paid for itself several times over in
contributions, it brought in over 2000 membership renewals, i.e., people who
would now be able to vote for Harper.
We set up phone banks in
January 2000 to move forward with Voter ID. Our goal was to contact all eligible
voters to see if they were supporting Harper or one of the other three
candidates. We could identify several thousand supporters by databasing
our direct-mail and Internet donors, and we also identified another thousand or
so by means of cost-free e-mail and fax blast outs. But the main job of
Voter ID had to be done over the telephone.
Though money was starting to
pour in, we did not feel we could afford to hire a commercial telemarketing
company. Nor did we want to set up a full-scale predictive dialing system
with callers using computer terminals to record answers to issue questions and
to renew memberships and take donations via credit cards. Such systems
require well trained and paid staff, whereas we wanted to use the dozens of
volunteers that were available to us in Calgary and, to a lesser extent, in
Ottawa. We therefore opted for a stripped-down predictive-dialer system
in which the call stations consisted simply of normal telephone keypads.
These could not have coped with complex polling questions and financial
transactions but were adequate for coding the answer to a simple question about
which candidate the respondent supported. We set up one bank with 20
seats in Calgary and later another similar bank in Ottawa. Because of the
simplicity, we were able to make extensive use of volunteers, though we also
manned some shifts with teen-agers who were paid for their time.
Throughout January and
February, our phone banks worked systematically through the party’s database,
calling everyone who would answer the phone. Those coded as undecided got
a second call late in the campaign to try to persuade them to come over to the
Although our fundraising and
Voter ID efforts were going well, it became apparent in the second half of
January that our campaign plan had one serious shortcoming: we had not put
enough emphasis on getting renewals and selling new memberships. We were
winning the battle of persuasion within the voters’ list of current members,
but there was a chance that Stockwell Day could defeat us by using sales to
enlarge the pool of eligible voters. Having just been through a
hard-fought leadership race in 2000, the Day camp was familiar with various
sales techniques and could hope to get renewals among people to whom they had
sold memberships in that year. We were selling memberships at Stephen’s
rallies, and our second wave of direct mail had also brought in a couple
thousand renewals; but these efforts were not nearly enough in light of the sales
numbers that were starting to trickle out of the Day organization. We
simply had to ramp up sales and renewals, and we had only one month to do it,
because sales had to be entered in the party’s main database before March 1 in
order to confer eligibility to vote.
We had the support of almost
30 members of caucus by this time, so we started to press our MP supporters to
mobilize their local organizations to sell memberships in their ridings.
We also placed some newspaper and magazine advertisements urging readers
to phone, fax, or e-mail memberships and donations to us. Beyond that, we
tried to think of ways to use our database for sales purposes. We were
now reasonably well funded, so we could afford to hire a telemarketing company
to make about 25,000 calls to lapsed members in ridings where we could not
count on the support of the local MP. We also thought of two ways to
exploit auto-dialer (“demon dialer”) technology.
Our first experiment was to
have Stephen record a message saying more or less, “Hi, this is Stephen
Harper. If you want to rejoin the party and support me, press 1.”
Using an American auto-dialer with a thousand ports, we were able in an
hour to send this message to the more than 100,000 lapsed members that we had
not yet mailed because they had joined during the formation of the Canadian
Alliance. About 1700 people pressed 1, and the computer spit out a list
of their phone numbers for call-backs. It turned out that not everyone
who pressed 1 really wanted to rejoin; some were just trying to make the
message go away. But we still got several hundred renewals out of the
An even more successful and
cost-effective experiment with the auto-dialer involved the approximately
30,000 Harper supporters that we had identified and databased by mid-February.
We sent them the following message recorded by Stephen: “It’s a very
tight race and every vote will count. I need your help. Please sell
some memberships as quickly as possible and phone them into the campaign office.”
Almost as soon as Stephen’s supporters got that message, the phones
started ringing incessantly in the office as supporters called in the sales
they were making to their family members and friends.
In the end, we sold about
16,000 new memberships and renewals. Stockwell Day’s campaign beat us
handily in that department, claiming sales and renewals of 29,000; but their
advantage in sales was not enough to overcome the big lead we had built up
among current members. However, if we had not gone all out to sell memberships
in February (and database technology was a big part of what we did), we could
have lost to Mr. Day. I had a lot sleepless nights that month until the
sales campaign was over!
The final step in our
communications plan was a “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV) message, for which we again
resorted to database technology. In late February we sent a letter
with a new pamphlet to all current members except those we had identified as
supporting other candidates (we didn’t want to encourage them to vote!).
We also sent a letter to all the new members sold by the other campaigns
after we received those updates to our database in early March. We did
not try to pry them away from their first choice, but we asked for their
second-ballot support if no one got a majority on the first ballot. Both
of these letters also contained a mild request for financial support, which
helped keep up the flow of contributions required to cover late campaign bills.
Finally, we used our phone banks to call all our identified supporters
and remind them to vote. We could have done this with the auto-dialer,
but our volunteers and paid teenagers were still keen, and we thought a live
voice would be more effective than a recorded message for GOTV.
We succeeded in saturating our
core supporters with messages. Most of our main target group—current
members—received at least two phone calls and two letters from us during the
campaign, plus auto-dialed announcements of campaign events in their area
(donors also received additional thank-you letters with special enclosures).
Others on the list, depending on which category they fell into, received
varying combinations of auto-dialed messages, live calls, and direct mail.
A few members rebelled at all this communication and said emphatically,
“Stop bothering me!” Far more people, however, seemed to relish the
contact, regarding it as a sign of life in a party they still cared deeply
about. Many prolonged their phone conversations, seeking to find out more
about Stephen and his views.
Although I cannot offer
conclusive proof, my experience on the campaign leads me to two conclusions:
First, our voter-contact program enabled the Harper campaign to win on the
first ballot. A small poll we commissioned before the campaign showed
Stephen Harper and Stockwell Day in a virtual dead heat, each receiving the
support of 20-25% of current members. But Harper wound up getting an
absolute majority of 55% on the first ballot, compared to Day’s 38%, even
though Day sold many more memberships. This means we must have won the
support of an overwhelming majority of current members—and they were the people
we saturated with letters and phone calls.
Second, our voter-contact
program helped bring about unusually high turnout in this contest. Almost
71% of eligible voters cast first-round ballots, compared to 60% in the first
round and 56% in the second round of the 2000 leadership race, and 42%, 50%,
and 66% in the party referendums of 1991, 1999, and 2000. Our letters and
phone calls helped energize members and get them re-involved in party affairs.
Together, these two results
contributed greatly to helping Harper get off to a successful start as Leader.
Winning on the first ballot meant that the leadership issue was closed.
Stockwell Day, though not humiliated, had lost decisively, and his
followers had little choice except to rally round the new Leader. In
contrast, a second ballot would have prolonged and perhaps exacerbated the
internal factionalism that had been tearing the party apart for over a year.
Also, members’ renewed interest in party affairs led to increased
financial contributions, which put the party back in the black and enabled it
to pay off a $2 million bank debt in the fall of 2002.
It is fitting that database
technology helped revive the party, because the Reform Party from the beginning
had always been based on database technology. The founders of the party
had the great good foresight to insist on keeping a single membership list in
one database in the national office. They thus avoided the problems
plaguing other federal parties whose lists are kept by provincial wings.
The single database has sustained the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance,
in good times and bad, by allowing the national office to conduct a unified
program of internal communications and fundraising within the membership.
Founded in 1987 when the new era of communications technology was just
starting to come into its own, the Reform Party (and the Canadian Alliance as
its successor) is truly a database party.