Incompetent Political Experts: Canada Edition

 

hello_my_name_is_consultant_badg_450Two recent posts, Martel’s well-written account of his experience with Republican Party “experts” and Dave Carter’s pointed questions for the political consultant class, made me remember my own experiences with campaign consultants north of the border.

Before the 2004 federal election, I accompanied my local candidate to an election-readiness session designed to get the party’s volunteers ready at the riding level. A (rather cute) French Canadian woman, a corporate PR flack by profession, led a session on strategic communication. She claimed to advise party leader Stephen Harper daily. We, the rubes, were there to soak up her wisdom.

This was a heady time for conservatives in Canada. The Reform Party and the old Progressive Conservative Party had united a few months before under the Conservative label — ditching the word “progressive” — and had a dynamic new leader, Stephen Harper. United, with a decade of vote-spitting behind us, we all had high hopes of defeating the ruling Liberals. The election-readiness session, held in downtown Toronto, was meant to ensure all our swords were sharp and the chain of command clearly understood.

The flack proceeded to give us a great deal of advice, but to many in the audience, much of it seemed wrongheaded. For instance, she said not to wear party buttons when you approached the door while canvassing; it would close peoples’ minds to you before you had a chance to speak to them. I pointed out that if you approached a house without the party paraphernalia, the homeowner would be even more closed-minded because he’d think you were a Jehovah’s Witness. She disagreed: Her conclusions were backed by scientific evidence, she said. Then she described the kind of suits you should wear. Scientific evidence showed that blue suits were the most trustworthy. Green and brown were the least. And hats? Out, way out. Ditch them.

I happened to be sitting beside the party candidate for the Kenora Riding. He told the flack that his riding is in the remote north, where wearing a suit outside in the middle of the day would just look weird. Also, he liked to wear a baseball cap because he burned easily, and everybody there wore baseball caps anyway, so they would be able to relate to him. She said no. Wear a suit and ditch the cap, no matter how badly your face burned. She said her advice had been scientifically tested for rural as well as urban ridings. I leaned over and whispered to him, “Don’t listen to her, she’s an idiot.”

I was on the verge of pointing out that as a scientific researcher, I thought her use of the word “science” as a magic incantation to squelch contrary voices was unscientific, but I held my tongue. But thinking about it later, perhaps I shouldn’t have. First, were her poll-tested principles even applicable? The people they’d polled said they preferred a suit to an open collar, but what context were they imagining? A television interview, a boardroom, or door-to-door canvassing in a rural riding? It makes a difference. Common sense and real-world experience indicate that people have different expectations in different settings.

Then there was her use of the word “rural.” Kenora is not rural. This riding has the land area of France, but only 56,000 people. Many of the communities are isolated Indian reserves, reachable only by air. Most of the riding has no road or rail access. The cornfields of Iowa are rural. The riding of Kenora is something else entirely. I don’t even know what you would call most of it – frontier, perhaps? Having lived for four years in Canada’s high arctic, I understood that, as did our Kenora candidate, though our PR “expert” did not. From the sound of it, she had spent most of her time in the boardrooms of Montreal and Toronto, and hadn’t ventured out much.

Like Martel, I said nothing because she was the “expert” and I was the amateur. Like Martel, I came to see how incompetent experts can be. I think this phenomenon arises because these people have more credentials than practical experience. So while they may have a good grasp of the big picture (though this is not guaranteed), they often don’t understand all the messy details that make up the smaller part of the picture. Unfortunately, all those little things add up to make the difference between victory and defeat. The arrogance of the consultant class prevents them from acknowledging this, because if they did, they would have to admit to themselves that their fancy degrees aren’t worth as much as they think they are.

Unlike the frustrated candidate from Kenora, the candidate from my riding hired the flack for several hours of coaching sessions. I suspect this was owed more to her attractiveness than her competence. My candidate had a weakness for the fairer sex. (The riding association paid for the sessions.)

The Conservatives lost the 2004 election, though they kept the Liberals to a minority. Considering our high hopes, this was a bitter disappointment, much like Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 was to American conservatives. Among other ridings, we lost Kenora (though we won it two elections later, so it wasn’t the riding).

A couple months after the election, there was a minor news item in the papers about Stephen Harper firing a whole slew of consultants at Party Headquarters. The press spun it as a joke – Harper is getting desperate — but Harper went on to win the next three federal elections, so I guess he fired the right people. I’ve always wondered if our PR flack was one of them.

I haven’t heard from her since that stupid workshop.

There are 12 comments.

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  1. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Canadian Cincinnatus: When I pointed out that if you approach a house and you don’t wear identifying party paraphernalia, the homeowner will be even more closed to you because he will think you are a Jehovah’s Witness. She disagreed, her conclusions were backed by scientific evidence, she said.

    Well, my experience comes from actually knocking on doors. When my candidate and I accidentally wore almost-matching suits, one lady hissed at us, pulled out a crucifix, and yelled, “go away! I’m a real Christian!”

    Never wear a suit while door-knocking.

    • #1
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    If the expert was any good, she could tell you which scientific tests she was referring to. then you could read for yourselves to find out what applicability they have to your situation.

    • #2
  3. Pseudodionysius Inactive
    Pseudodionysius
    @Pseudodionysius

    Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have been sighted going door to door in Kenora.

    • #3
  4. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @IWalton

    Do we know if visiting people or calling at dinner time, or flooding the in box actually works?

    • #4
  5. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    “The arrogance of the consultant class prevents them from acknowledging this, because if they did, they would have to admit to themselves that their fancy degrees aren’t worth as much as they think they are.”

    And perhaps more importantly, that they aren’t worth the salaries they’re paid. It isn’t just about self-esteem and snobbery: They have a huge financial interest in not acknowledging this.

    What I’d like to see next on the member feed is a contrary account, if one exists — has anyone had an experience with a political consultant who really did seem worth every penny?

    • #5
  6. Ricochet Thatcher
    Ricochet
    @ToryWarWriter

    Having heard about a recent event in Ontario for the Tories, I can say this is alive and well in the modern party.  Most of us just ignore this type of wasteful advice and throw it out the door.

    The party holds these mainly to get out the campaign message out to the Candidates. Once the message is recieved ignore the rest as you wish.

    But never forget as the volunteer your more important and more valuable than some consultant who is there being paid.  There opinion is only worth what its paid for.

    Also John Penfold the answer is Yes.  Yes you get positive responses.  You also get information that people are not your supporters, and can thus remove them from your list, letting you better concentrate resources in other places.

    • #6
  7. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    John Penfold:Do we know if visiting people or calling at dinner time, or flooding the in box actually works?

    I do know that the lit that generates the most complaints also generates the most positive response and/or donations.

    From that, I can hypothesize that the phone calls/emails that are the most annoying are also the most successful.

    • #7
  8. The Beard of Avon Inactive
    The Beard of Avon
    @TheBeardofAvon

    New member — first comment.

    As I’ve read the three posts about “experts” and the “consulting class” — and the discussion that’s followed them–I keep thinking: Conservatives are supposed to believe in local solutions over federal solutions, so why do we enforce global (“scientific”) procedures for elections on the local leadership?

    I spent two years as a precinct chair in one of the most conservative states in the U.S.. Every time I attended a county meeting I walked away feeling like my time was wasted in arguing over minutia (seriously–we once spent 3 hours arguing whether “for” or “in” was the right word to use in a specific sentence, only to have the county vice-chair finally point out that the bylaw we were discussing was something that would have to be voted on by the state committee, and we county folk couldn’t change it anyway).

    Meanwhile, all of the canvasing/flyers/calling, etc. that led up to the election were just given to us by script or by stack-of-flyers, and the job of precinct chair for elections devolved into hanging things on door knobs and reading scripts on the phone (or finding others to hang things and read scripts).

    If we truly believe local leadership is the solution, why isn’t local leadership required to lead the way in all of these things?

    • #8
  9. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @Martel

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:“The arrogance of the consultant class prevents them from acknowledging this, because if they did, they would have to admit to themselves that their fancy degrees aren’t worth as much as they think they are.”

    And perhaps more importantly, that they aren’t worth the salaries they’re paid. It isn’t just about self-esteem and snobbery: They have a huge financial interest in not acknowledging this.

    What I’d like to see next on the member feed is a contrary account, if one exists — has anyone had an experience with a political consultant who really did seem worth every penny?

    In my own experience, I didn’t see the experts as being of much actual use, but I did see potential for them to be useful.

    Unfortunately, they’re too arrogant to acknowledge that people with different perspectives could be valuable for this to happen, as well as what you say regarding their own self-interest.

    As anti-expert as my analysis was, I do recognize that such wonks have a role to play, and I’d be more than happy to let them play it in peace should they grant me a similar respect.  But they won’t.

    I plan to do a post that actually tries to bridge the gap between the camps soon, but I’m moving so it’ll have to wait.

    • #9
  10. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @Martel

    The Beard of Avon:New member — first comment.

    As I’ve read the three posts about “experts” and the “consulting class” — and the discussion that’s followed them–I keep thinking: Conservatives are supposed to believe in local solutions over federal solutions, so why do we enforce global (“scientific”) procedures for elections on the local leadership?

    […]

    If we truly believe local leadership is the solution, why isn’t local leadership required to lead the way in all of these things?

    Part of it’s paranoia, part of it’s that the national media landscape is genuinely tilted against us.  (“Just because you’re paranoid, it don’t mean they’re not after you.”)

    If the county chair in some podunk county party in Alabama says something deemed “offensive,” national media will make every attempt to tie that in with every Republican everywhere.

    This is a result of the national GOP’s refusal to go on offense, to keep track of offensive statements by Democratic officials everywhere so that the moment the media pounces on one of us, we call the media on their bias and fight back.

    Also, they’re just so certain of their own expertise that they can’t fathom how the manager of a hardware store in Kansas could possibly know how to do something better than they could.

    We need to understand that what we know is true economically might also be true politically.  The Democrats (far better at local political autonomy) have the opposite problem.

    • #10
  11. user_51254 Member
    user_51254
    @BereketKelile

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:“The arrogance of the consultant class prevents them from acknowledging this, because if they did, they would have to admit to themselves that their fancy degrees aren’t worth as much as they think they are.”

    And perhaps more importantly, that they aren’t worth the salaries they’re paid. It isn’t just about self-esteem and snobbery: They have a huge financial interest in not acknowledging this.

    What I’d like to see next on the member feed is a contrary account, if one exists — has anyone had an experience with a political consultant who really did seem worth every penny?

    I’m not sure if you’re asking this question, Claire, but I have the privilege of working with two very undervalued consultants who are unique in their abilities. They’ve had years of success in very difficult races and on very difficult issues. Our most recent success was the defeat of a bill to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in California.

    Political consultants aren’t different from other professionals: there are good ones and bad ones. Because they make their living off of this work they only are involved in a small portion of the total political activism that occurs. Of course, they’re more concentrated in the most consequential of races but my point is that it’s more often the case that campaigns suffer from a lack of people with experience and expertise.

    • #11
  12. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @Martel

    Bereket Kelile:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:“The arrogance of the consultant class prevents them from acknowledging this, because if they did, they would have to admit to themselves that their fancy degrees aren’t worth as much as they think they are.”

    And perhaps more importantly, that they aren’t worth the salaries they’re paid. It isn’t just about self-esteem and snobbery: They have a huge financial interest in not acknowledging this.

    What I’d like to see next on the member feed is a contrary account, if one exists — has anyone had an experience with a political consultant who really did seem worth every penny?

    I’m not sure if you’re asking this question, Claire, but I have the privilege of working with two very undervalued consultants who are unique in their abilities. They’ve had years of success in very difficult races and on very difficult issues. Our most recent success was the defeat of a bill to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in California.

    But the system is set up in such a way that the types of consultants you describe are exactly the type who aren’t going to get acknowledged and promoted.

    As a metric, actual results matter far less than knowing the right people or being able to sound really smart when you described why you lost the last campaign you participated in.

    Consultants who lose election after election always seem to find another job, and they find actual competence threatening.

    • #12
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