Project Wonderful

Friday, December 28, 2012

Oh, Canada!

You guys have been asking for information on working on Canadian campaigns and here it is, courtesy of Canado-US campaigner, Joshua Hollenberg (thanks Josh)! Very interesting stuff here I learned a lot. I hope you do too!


There are two major factors that differentiate Canadian politics from American politics: parliamentary vs. presidential government, and the definition of money as speech.

The best way to describe a Canadian election is as a House of Representatives race, with the President as the leader of the House Dems. A Canadian election is made up of 308 ridings, each contested by representatives of Canada’s political parties. There are 3 major parties that contest every riding (Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic), as well as several fringe/regional parties (Green, Bloc Quebecois). The party that wins the most seats forms government, with the leader of the party as the Prime Minister. There can be majority or minority governments depending on whether the governing party receives more or less than half of the seats in the Legislature. Currently Canada has a majority government, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper leading the Conservative Party of Canada.

Ridings have up to roughly 200,000 people in them, and vary in size, depending on how dense the population is. The smallest is 9 km2, the largest spans three time zones and goes as far north as the North Pole. My experience on urban campaigns was very similar to my experience volunteering for OFA in Durham, NC for the week prior to the 2012 election: all focus and resources go to supporting the field operations, comprised of door knocking and phone calling, run out of a single office. More rural campaigns have several smaller offices in dispersed population centers, or have a greater emphasis on phone calls in remote regions.

The federal party organizations operate above the local campaigns, kind of like a presidential campaign, but without the ground game or singular focus in the lit and messaging. The party leaders, along with other prominent politicians who have national name recognition and are guaranteed to win in their ridings, tour the country making policy announcements, visiting battleground ridings, and using party messaging in media appearances. The federal parties are also responsible for producing and airing ads, maintaining a central database for voter contact and information (imagine NGP VAN was owned and maintained by the Democratic Party), and maintaining contact with the local campaigns through frequent conference calls. The parties also control branding – providing generic lit, websites, messaging, and identifying preferred vendors for lit production, robocalls, and phone banking.

The second major difference is campaign finance. For federal campaigns, personal contributions are capped at $1,100/year/person (including candidates to their own campaigns). Union, corporations, and associations are not allowed to make political donations. In addition to donation limits, campaigns and third parties have spending limits. Local campaigns are limited by a formula based on how many voters are in the riding, and federal parties were limited to $21 million each in the 2011 election. Third parties (defined as individuals or associations) who wanted to run ad campaigns leading up to the 2011 election were capped at under $190,000, and corporations and unions were banned from airing political ads. In addition, non-profit political activity is strictly limited, with the threat of loss of non-profit status if the limits are crossed.

As a result, only the federal parties can produce and air TV ads, as local campaigns face tight budgets and difficulty fundraising. After office rental, computers, printers, office supplies, lit, lawn signs, and robocalls/phone banks, there is very little money left over for additional expenditures. In kind donations must also be accounted for in campaign budgets.

Finally, because Canadian elections do not have fixed election dates, especially with minority governments that can fall at any time, there is no two-year lead up like in the States. Nobody knew if the 2011 federal election was going to happen until the opposition parties actually defeated the government, at which point there were roughly 30 days until Canadians went to the polls. This prevented pre-election spending by local campaigns, and made any attempt at election planning vague at best. Once the election was called, campaigns had to work within the spending limits and hit the ground running.

These rules greatly reduce the influence of money, but it also constrains what the parties, candidates, and staff are able to do. For example, it is very difficult to find a paid position on a Canadian campaign, as every dollar given to a paid vol is a dollar not being spent on lit, phone calls, or (for the federal campaigns) TV ads. The “professional campaigners” that exists in the US are financially impossible in Canada, which is why so many Canadians go south to practice politics. Additionally, the tech machine that was built in Chicago for OFA can’t be truly replicated in Canada, as the infrastructure requirements would dwarf the campaign budgets available to the parties.

There are many differences between Canadian and American campaigns. There is nothing like a presidential campaign in Canada in terms of scope, organization, or spending. There is only one level of government up for election at a time – no coordinated campaigns. We don’t elect our Senators or our judges, and provincial (state) campaigns run on their own schedules. There are no major conventions or massive rallies, as those things cost a lot of money. Parties have programs to track voter contacts and histories, but nothing as intense as Narwhal. Most importantly, all data is religiously tracked and kept, as elections are built around parties, not presidential candidates. From what I saw in the States, the infrastructure built by Obama will have to be rebuilt by his successor; whereas in Canada the parties maintain much more of the organizational structure regardless of party leader.

However, the similarities between the two countries are much more telling than their differences. Both have campaigns with three parts: voter ID, voter persuasion, and GOTV. Door knocking is the primary method of campaigning, supported by phone calls. GOTV wins elections. There is no greater joy than winning, and no disappointment more painful than losing. And most importantly, campaigns are run by amazingly motivated and dedicated volunteers who eat poorly and don’t get enough sleep, but we love them for what they do!


  1. This is pretty much correct. Campaigns in Canada have something like 1/10th to 1/20th as much money, per voter, as U.S. campaigns do. So something has to give and what gives is a) expensive TV advertising and b) paid organizer salaries. There are still some well-connected consultants getting rich here and there but not very many of them.

    A few additional differences: there is no registration by party in Canada, and voting history is not recorded by government. So while in many U.S. states a Democratic campaign immediately knows that Ted Q. Voter is registered Democrat and voted in 4 of the last 5 elections, that knowledge is not collected or provided by the government in Canada. The parties make some attempt to collect such information, with varying degrees of success.

    One other big difference is a big tax incentive for donating to political candidates and parties.

    If anyone wants to volunteer on a progressive campaign in Toronto this coming spring, leave some kind of contact info in comments...

  2. Michael! I want to work on the Toronto campaign!