Conservatives say their ‘virtual’ campaign strategy is paying off already
As campaigning federal politicians fan out across the country for traditional meet-and-greet events, Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives are focusing on ‘virtual’ town hall events. The party’s national campaign director says it’s how most election campaigns will operate in the future.
When the election was called earlier this month, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was ready for his close up. His party had even built its own studio for it.
Fred Delorey, Conservative national campaign director, said getting the studio up and running was all about being “prepared if we have to have a full virtual campaign, a pandemic election.”
The Conservative team is taking a very different approach to this election than it has to previous ones. While the other parties are respecting pandemic protocols and keeping their own studios on standby, their leaders are more or less sticking to the traditional election model — long days on the road, criss-crossing the country, holding in-person whistle stops and rallies.
“That’s an outdated way to do campaigning,” Delorey told CBC News.
O’Toole, meanwhile, is spending at least two to three days each week in the party’s downtown Ottawa hotel broadcast studio.
The studio — the brainchild of Delorey and his team — is where O’Toole holds virtual town halls with voters from coast to coast.
Once O’Toole is in the studio and ready, an automated phone message goes out to a specific region of the country: “Hello, this is Erin O’Toole, leader of Canada’s Conservatives.”
Anyone receiving the call gets a pre-recorded message asking them if they want to participate in the town hall with O’Toole: “Please stay on the line to join our conference right now.”
Over 192,000 Canadians have taken part in the ten town halls O’Toole has hosted since the campaign began. Delorey said they’re expanding the campaign’s reach well beyond the Conservative base.
“We’re reaching out to people who are undecided voters. We’re not just trying to preach to the converted,” he said.
The Conservatives say they vet participants’ questions for O’Toole to ensure they are not repetitive and cover a range of topics.
A data windfall
The most valuable thing the party gets from the virtual town halls may be the collection of data — the names and phone numbers of supporters they can contact on election day.
“We do polls throughout it asking if Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives can count on their support,” said Delorey. “And if they confirm yes, then yeah, absolutely, we would track that. These are people we want to get out the vote.”
Even some Liberals say the Conservatives are being quite innovative in campaign 2021.
“When you have a virtual studio, you can reach more people,” said Jeremy Ghio, former director of communications for cabinet minister Mélanie Joly.
“Rallies are made for members of the party, for volunteers. Virtual assemblies give you the opportunity to reach out to more people across the country and not only one specific region.”
The benefits of being there
Ghio adds that one major drawback to the virtual campaign is the difficulty involved in making personal connections with voters.
“You can appear being far away. If you are in Ottawa and you’re trying to speak to people in St. John’s or Gander … how can you get the reality on the ground?” he said.
“There is no better way than to be there, to understand what struggles people are going through.”
O’Toole’s team does admit the relatively new Conservative leader can come across as somewhat stiff on camera in an empty studio — but they say that when he does get out in public, he feeds off the energy of the crowd.
“It is great, after a very difficult year and a half for our country, to get together in person. I get to hear real applause, not emojis on your computer screen,” O’Toole told the people who attended his recent rally in Saskatoon.
“He is getting stronger and stronger at delivering his message and talking to Canadians,” Delorey said. “So there’s no question that there’s also value in getting out there on the road.”
Veteran campaign strategist Zain Velji called the Conservatives’ virtual strategy “kind of brilliant.”
A ‘unique asset’
Velji, who managed the 2017 election campaign for Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, said that while the virtual campaign may lose the personal connections critical to most election campaigns, it also generates valuable data.
“What drives those polls, what drives that narrative for the target voters that they’re trying to reach out [to], is digital,” he said. “And to have a studio and the ability to then control, click and feed that information to people that you want to reach out to is a unique asset that I think they’ve done quite a good job building.
“So the biggest thing that they have going for them is control, the fact that they literally get to control this entire operation. It’s their studio, their timing, their message.”
Velji pointed out that it’s also a lot cheaper than flying a plane across the country for five weeks. He also suggested that, if COVID caseloads rise enough to again require localized lockdowns, O’Toole and his team will have an edge.
“They may use that [studio] regardless of where we end up with the fourth wave, but should the fourth wave get worse? Should other provinces clamp down even further?” he said. “They already have the infrastructure built.”
Delorey said he’s assuming that it’s an edge Conservatives won’t enjoy in future elections — that other parties will follow their example.
“I think this type of campaign is going to become the standard in Canadian politics, for national campaigns.”
Have an election question for CBC News? Email us: [email protected] Your input helps inform our coverage.
Find out who’s ahead in the latest polls with our Poll Tracker.