Ten lessons from eight campaigns
Canada's about to get another election -- the eighth in my career as a political journalist. Here, a loose collection of lessons I've learned from those eight campaigns, mostly revolving around what I know best -- how the media cover elections.
1. The politicians don't decide the elusive "ballot question." The voters do.
2. After a flurry of headlines and front-page news for the first week, the election goes quiet in the second week. It is entirely possible to forget (unless you're in the middle of it) that we're actually having an election. Campaign stories slip off the front pages and sometimes off the nightly news all together. Public attention doesn't pick up again until after the televised leaders' debates, which usually take place around Week 3.
3. About those debates. Everyone resolves not to talk about "knock-out punches," because they are a hackneyed cliche and rarely happen in real life. When the debates happen, everyone talks about "knock-out punches" and whether they happened. Everyone forgets that it takes a few days to determine what was the "defining moment" of the debates; it's often not what the commentators said it was that evening.
4. Reporters will make "fit to govern" judgments based on how well the tour buses perform in the area of feeding and accommodating the media. Campaign buses that get lost or break down or fail to provide three square meals a day to reporters will be pronounced abject failures at political leadership/competence.
5. All media will declare that they're going to not report on polls in the same old way and will break that promise by Day 2.
6. All media will say that they're going to talk to "real people," not strategists and communications advisers. The "real people" they ask for opinion will quickly turn into armchair strategists and communications advisers.
7. Applies to all parties: Policy announcements will be made in the morning, the rest of the day will be a flurry of reactions while the campaign planes/buses travel, and the evenings will be devoted to rallies. This means that the reporters aboard the planes actually only have news to file in the mornings and people watching TV are more up to date than the tour reporters about what's happened that day in the campaign.
8. There will be arguments on the tours about the price of seats aboard the planes/buses. Reporters will say that their money should guarantee a minimum number of scrums with the leaders, which is sort of like paying for access, an ethical no-no, but we'll argue the point anyway, with some enthusiasm.
9. All politicians will say they're going to win. They are not lying to us. Every politician has to believe they're going to win, just to get out of bed every morning and do the hard work of campaigning every day. Journalists will persist in trying to get the politicians to say they're going to lose/falter, however.
10. Some of the best stories of the campaign will be produced by people off the buses. Which will make us all wonder whether we should revisit the idea of mass coverage of the tours, but at the next election, we'll all hop aboard those leaders' buses again anyway.
Hope that helps. Welcome to Campaign 2011.