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Two 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.