Passion can trump technology at the ballot box

Executive Chairman
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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on 20170112.

The Trump and Trudeau campaigns also proved that what politicians do still matters — both on the campaign and in government.

To say that election campaigning has changed significantly over the years is to state the obvious. And nothing has propelled campaign teams to grow more sophisticated and develop sharper insights than the rise of technology.

At one time, local campaigners would stand in front of the local Tim Hortons and meet every voter who came by. Now, campaigns mine data bases to find the three people on a given street most likely to vote for their candidate and go talk just to them.

It’s a whole new world. Big data has given political parties a greater understanding of not only who votes for them and why but how they think and feel as well. Facebook clicks, tweets, and TV-watching habits are parsed by campaign teams. Knowing your favourite TV show allows them to predict your opinions on climate change policy.

By and large, this new world order works: Former U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign’s ability to do a superior job of mining information propelled it to victory. The Stephen Harper Conservatives were masterful in targeting their voters and hammering home their message, ignoring the distractions of the media.

Both campaigns successfully, and with intention, spoke to voters who were open to their message and to their policies.

Both also had an important understanding of the shape of the electorate.

Both campaigns delivered wins based on their strategic appeals to specific segments of the population.

But, as anyone who has experienced a computer meltdown knows, technology is not always king.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and the Republican party that chose Donald Trump as its presidential candidate are very different: one party prides itself on its evidence-based approach and thoughtful co-ordination, while the other stakes its claim on brash talk.

But both have similar electoral roots. Donald Trump’s victory relied on blue-collar white voters across the Midwest who had grown increasingly conservative in their outlook over the course of the last two decades, but who tended to stay home on election day.

Before the election, the media and the Democrats seemed to think states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio would all remain part of the Democratic coalition simply because many disaffected white voters would simply sit out the election and not vote. The states were discounted by media and the Democrats as part of an immovable ‘blue wall’ that would see them remain part of the Democratic coalition for years to come, in spite of the disaffection that was swirling within them.

Justin Trudeau’s victory relied on young voters, whose voting participation was historically far below that of middle-aged and older Canadians. Their views, which were stridently out of touch with Harper’s, were discounted. As people who conventional wisdom said would never vote, they were simply of little concern to the Conservatives.

The 2015 Canadian election and the 2016 U.S. election delivered stunning rebukes to those who believed citizens who were unlikely to participate in elections never would.

One of the under-reported facts of the last Canadian federal election is that the Conservatives lost few actual voters. Instead, the Liberals’ margin of victory was in large part due to the large turnout of young voters who had been discounted as non-voters.

Hillary Clinton’s lumbering, data-heavy campaign was similarly overtaken, against all expectations and prognostications, by a surging white vote.

The campaigns proved that, for all data can account for, it can’t account for passion.

The campaigns also proved that what politicians do still matters — both on the campaign and in government.

When Donald Trump announces a travel ban against people from seven countries, it may enrage media pundits, but only cements his political future, because as much as it upsets some of the electorate, it makes it much more likely that those former non-voters will become ongoing members of his voting coalition.

When Justin Trudeau announces a marijuana policy that ignites criticism from social conservatives and older Canadians, it doesn’t hurt his government: rather it reinforces the idea that he is something new and exciting for young voters and helps ensure they will return to the polls in 2019.

In fact, Trump and Trudeau have to govern in a way that keeps the faith of their target voters. Should they fall in to the trap of the same old politics that led their target voters to sit out previous elections, they risk losing the enthusiasm they generated with the result that those newly animated voters will return to their La-Z-boys.

It’s a data-driven world, to be sure, but these two transformative political figures have demonstrated that organic enthusiasm can still trump cynical technocracy.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

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