Timing of call to the polls could backfire, say political scientists
The Opposition parties say they are ready for a Newfoundland and Labrador election call that could come any day.
But this being the winter of our pandemic, there are suggestions a hurried election could make for very discontented, apathetic voters.
Slogging to the polls in crappy weather and maybe standing in a long queue as social distancing allows fewer people inside polling stations, or the potential of travelling over icy roads in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, may put some people off voting, affecting turnout.
Voters may not be as receptive to door-knocking candidates during a pandemic, leading to more reliance on advertising and social media and less literal facetime. And gone from the game are likely big, boisterous rallies in the local community hall and entourages logging the many miles on the retirement home/coffee shop/mall circuit.
Shawn Skinner, who heads up election preparedness for the provincial Progressive Conservative party, said the PCs are better prepared in terms of candidates than the last provincial election, with only four candidates yet to be namedmas of Monday.
“If the election is called Friday, we are ready to go in at least 36 (districts), maybe more,” he said.
The branding is ready and candidates are trained up, Skinner said. Sign and brochure templates are ready for the printer — just insert the candidates’ names once the writ is dropped.
“That’s all in the bag,” he said.
Fundraising has been a challenge this past year, though it’s still coming in.
“I can tell you for us it has been a tough slog. People don’t have the money, the economy is not doing as well and we’re probably going to have less of a budget this year than we have on past elections, but that's fine. We’ll cut the cloth to fit the garment. … We’ll be ready to fight an election, no problem,” Skinner said.
The party has recommended to PC Leader Ches Crosbie that he not have a campaign bus.
Skinner said while big rallies are out, the party will rely more on social media and things like Facebook Live events.
Skinner had to switch gears during the Ward 2 St. John’s city council byelection, which he won. He relied on his kids to help him with the social media learning curve, but also used the old-fashioned method of contacting people by telephone when door-to-door campaigning was affected by the pandemic.
Skinner said voter turnout might be affected in a provincial election, even though there are special methods of voting, such as mail-in ballots.
“I think it will be a Saturday election day, which could make it even tougher,” he said, adding the Liberals may deliberately want a low turnout caused by the three factors at play — winter, the pandemic and a rumoured weekend voting day.
If you heed what happened in some other provinces, the Liberals may be heading into it with a leg up as the electorate might not want to tinker with a system that’s been managing the pandemic just fine.
Skinner said voters will realize it's officials such as Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, not the politicians, who are responsible for what has worked to fend off COVID-19.
New Democratic Party president Kyle Rees, who is also chair of this party’s elections planning committee, said the NDP is better prepared than any time in his memory, having started its work as soon as former premier Dwight Ball resigned.
The NDP has all the logistics worked out, he said.
Financially, the party has never operated the same way as the Liberals and PCs with their $1,000-per-plate dinners and reliance on big corporate help, he said.
“To some extent, campaigning during a pandemic should level the field a little bit,” Rees said, noting that’s especially a possibility if there are no campaign buses and big rallies to compete with.
“What matters this time around is going to be the message,” he said.
Elections Newfoundland and Labrador has devised extensive guidance around how to campaign during a pandemic and Rees said the NDP trusts in that organization’s ability to conduct the voting safely.
Rees noted most concerning is the timing of an election prior to the release of the report of the economic recovery team headed by Dame Moya Greene.
Like Skinner, he said the electorate is smart enough to separate the civil servants from the politicians, and hero worship over the handling of the pandemic shouldn’t play a role in the outcome.
Liberal party president Megan Reynolds said the party has been getting ready since Premier Andrew Furey was sworn in last August.
“In terms of timing, the party is ready for whenever the leader wants to call it,” Reynolds said.
She said large dinners in hotel ballrooms weren't possible during the pandemic, but the party did hold smaller-scale fundraisers, and though certain sectors were tapped financially, other entities and companies have been forthcoming.
Reynolds said the party will reveal when the writ is dropped whether or not it will have a campaign bus.
The party has looked to other provinces that have been able to pull off elections during the pandemic, and is comfortable with the logistics, she said.
Reynolds also noted that during the Humber Valley-Gros Morne byelection, mail-in balloting saw an uptick. As well, she said this election will likely see polling stations spread out to different venues to accommodate social distancing.
Other ways of voting, such as advance polls and casting ballots at returning offices, will likely become more popular, she said.
While door-knocking can make or break a campaign, especially for newcomers, Reynolds said Liberal candidates are ready to be innovative with events like Zoom town hall meetings, and more reliance on social media and digital advertising to engage voters.
Party exuberance in any election is built on the pumped-up adrenaline of gathering campaign workers — something that will be hard to do during a pandemic. Volunteering will be very different this time around, Reynolds acknowledged. Many will work from home rather than at party headquarters to make sure they are safe.
She said candidates will follow all the guidance from Elections NL as well as public health guidelines to campaign safely.
But while the parties may be ready to go, the appetite for the election is a different matter.
An election had to take place within a year of Furey assuming leadership of his party, and a minority government also made the situation unstable.
Memorial University political scientist Kelly Blidook said the government is making a pretty big mistake asking the electorate to endorse it to continue governing without revealing how an economic recovery will take place, and therefore the timing of an immediate election doesn't make sense.
“I think that’s the biggest problem here,” he said.
Blidook acknowledged that with COVID-19 cases extremely low, people might not be too concerned about candidates going door to door.
But he said it’s still not ideal.
“If the numbers start spiking, are we going to cancel the election? We can’t really cancel an election once it is called,” Blidook said.
It’s also going to be trickier to engage voters, he said.
“How many are going to want to join one more Zoom meeting this week if that is their chance of interacting with their candidates?” he said.
Blidook said the best thing for the premier to so is announce when he expects the economic recovery report and a budget update, and offer a timeline that anticipates calling an election.
“I think it’s poor timing for a number of reasons to do it now,” he said, noting the primary one is the pending economic recovery report, followed by the pandemic and the winter weather.
“There are a number of factors here that are not ideal,” Blidook said.
MUN political scientist Russell Williams said the Liberals’ internal polling may be motivating the party, which may also want to get it over with before it has to have a hard conversation with the electorate about its plans.
If the polling suggests the Liberals can win a hefty majority before it has to deliver tough news, that explains the rushed timing, he said.
“In this case the government is quite clearly saying to us, ‘We’re not going to tell you what our plans are. We are in the middle of trying to figure it out, but we're popular right now, so we want an election.’” Williams said.
That strategy is a huge risk, though, as evidenced by Ball campaigning on one set of public policies and then introducing a draconian budget.
“It absolutely blew up in his face,” WIlliams said, adding the current Liberals risk seeming disingenuous to voters by taking the risk of an election at this time.
As for door-to-door campaigning, WIlliams said it’s a dynamic that plays a particularly big role in Newfoundland and Labrador politics, unlike in some other provinces, especially for candidates who are not that well known.
Kevin Tobin is a former creative director with 25 years’ experience in advertising and marketing. Now self-employed and operating small design studio creating editorial cartoons, paintings, and children’s books, Tobin noted an analysis by the New York Times recently said more than US$1.5 billion was spent on advertising for the presidential race alone from May 3 to Oct. 15. In contrast, $496 million was spent on ads around the presidential race by that point in 2016.
"So I think that advertising will still play a big role in the upcoming provincial election here. The pandemic has forced candidates to embrace the digital infrastructures and to get creative with how to use them. Election campaigning today has changed greatly than even the last provincial election. Candidates will have to find ways to do their campaigning through social media and through other creative outlets," Tobin said.
"But as things change, some things remain the same. Although door-to-door campaigning may be challenging, I spoke with a couple of printers of signs and banners, and they say that they’re getting a lot of inquiries and people are ordering as many signs as in the past, some more. So I think you can still expect to see signage on people’s lawns."
Social media, in general, and Facebook and Twitter, in particular, seem to be the popular tools that help candidates get in touch with the voters, he said.