Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Conservatives Should Be Wary of Their Rhetoric

Media martyrdom may make for good fundraising, but bad politics

With a 2008 election possibly in the cards, the Conservatives -- like all of Canada's political parties -- will need every dollar they can get their hands on.

Apparently, they're banking on outrage over the recent allegations of collusion between the Liberal party and the CBC. In a fundraising letter, Conservative party campaign director Doug Finley is urging Conservative party members to contribute whatever they can to help the party win what he predicts will be an uphill battle:

"Let's face the facts.

Running as a Conservative in Canada is never easy.

The Liberals have long benefited from the support of the country's most powerful vested interests. And the NDP has always been backed by the country's loudest vocal interests.

And now it has been revealed that representatives of the CBC – the CBC that you and I pay for with our taxes – worked with Liberal MPs to attack our Government's record on a House of Commons committee.

That's right. Former Liberal Cabinet Minister Jean Lapierre – now a journalist with the TVA network – told CTV Newsnet that questions posed by Liberal MPs in House Committee were written by the CBC.

"I knew all about those questions. They were written by the CBC and provided to the Liberal Members of Parliament and the questions that Pablo Rodriguez asked were written by the CBC and I can't believe that but last night, an influential Member of Parliament came to me and told me those are the questions that the CBC wants us to ask tomorrow."
-Jean Lapierre, CTV Newsnet, December 13, 2007
Lapierre's stunning revelations shocked me. And having listened to Canadians' feedback on talk radio and read their comments on the blogs I know they probably shocked you too.

The CBC even admitted to Canadian Press that its behaviour in this instance was both "inappropriate" and "inconsistent" with the Corporation's policies and practices.

Sadly, this is not the first time our taxpayer-funded public broadcaster has found itself caught up in an embarrassing anti-Conservative controversy.

During the 2004 election campaign, it was revealed that CBC tried to stack a town hall-style meeting with Stephen Harper with people who were "scared, freaked out or worried about the Conservatives, the Conservative agenda or its leader."

And following our 2006 election victory the CBC publicly expressed "regret" after one its journalists was exposed using footage of Stephen Harper totally out-of-context and in a way that distorted the Government's position.

So what does this all mean?

In the coming weeks and months Canada could be headed into an election forced by St├ęphane Dion's Liberals.

We may not have the support of the Liberals' powerful allies. (As Campaign Director, I can assure you that the CBC will not be writing Stephen Harper's questions for his debate with Mr. Dion). But we do have the support of people like you. Proud Canadians who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules.

I would ask that you make a contribution - $200 or $100 – whatever you can afford to ensure the Conservative Party has the resources it needs to take on the Liberal Party and its vested interest allies.

We will need all of the money we can raise in order to fight back with paid advertising, direct voter contact and candidate support when the Liberals - and their vested interest allies – begin to attack our record, our leader and our plans for Canada's future.

People like you are the backbone of the Conservative Party, the only party that stands up to the vested and vocal interests who so desperately want to go back. Please contribute today so we can keep Canada moving forward under the strong leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In theory, the letter may bring in precisely the results one simply knows Finley is hoping for.

Needing money to overcome the machinations of a powerful media enemy may look good on a partisan fundraising letter, but it overlooks a number of basic political realities.

The Conservatives may be overestimating the value of money to a political campaign. Certainly, one can't mount a campaign without it, but masses of money doesn't guarantee political success. This is a lesson the Conservatives should have learned by now, having out-fundraised the Liberals since what seems like the dawn of time, the Conservatives have all too often come up short electorally.

First off, one has to consider the key differences between "earned media" and "paid media". Paid media consists of TV, radio and newspaper ads that are paid for by the party. Earned media consists of media exposure earned by releasing policy statements, criticising political opponents, or staging photo ops.

Earned media is infinitely more valuable than paid media, because earned media is what makes a party seem like it matters. A party that seems unnewsworthy by necessity also seems inconsequential. Being deemed insignificant is a political death warrant by any means.

Secondly, no amount of money can elect a candidate that is unlikable.

As Steven Levitt and Michael Dubner remind us, money can't force people to cast their ballot in favour of a candidate. In examining US congressional campaigns in which opponents ran against one another on consecutive occasions, Levitt and Dubner concluded that in some cases, 50% of money spent by a candidate could account for as little as 1% of their vote total.

Levitt and Dubner basically concluded that in elections, previously defeated candidates had a tendency to spend more money, while incumbents had a tendency to spend either the same amount, or less. However, despite expectations that the higher-spending candidates would at least perform better, voting patterns didn't always correlate to the amount of additional spending.

In short, money doesn't have quite the impact on politics that some imagine.

Even with Liberal fundraising figures languishing in the basement, the Conservatives are far from guaranteed to ski down mountains of cash and back into 24 Sussex Drive. In a future election they'll have to earn their way back into power.

If they want to do so, they'll need to earn media coverage, and control their message stringently enough to ensure that such coverage will be favourable.

Complaining about a hostile CBC and throwing money to the four winds is a recipe for electoral disaster.

The alleged collusion between the Liberals and the CBC is, indeed a serious matter. But milking this controversy for the purposes of fundraising may send a message to the Candian electorate that the Conservative party may not be altogether comfortable with.

To those in the know, it suggests the party may be out of touch with some basic political realities.

The Conservatives need to call a public inquiry into the collusion allegations, and let that matter take care of itself. Scrambling to raise money on the back of these allegations only makes the party appear weak and unable to conduct a political campaign in the media.

The Conservatives may inspire a windfall of fundraising cash with this issue, but they'll do themselves more favours by simply getting down to the business of conducting politics. That will involve dealing with the media including, inevitably, the CBC.

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