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John Ivison: Do we really need this travelling circus? There must be a smarter way to elect a PM

There was a moment of clarity before the delirium really kicked in – a realization that there must be a smarter and more environmentally-friendly way to elect a prime minister than criss-crossing the second biggest country in the world multiple times by plane and bus over the course of a month. Preferably one that does not involve incapacitating reporters, campaign staff and the planet.

It was 11 p.m. on a chilly Saturday night in Calgary. The day had started 17 hours earlier in Niagara Falls and wouldn’t end for another three hours, when Justin Trudeau’s tour plane was due to be wheels down in Vancouver.

That was when an email landed from the Liberal war-room with the itinerary for day 40 of the campaign – the last full day of Trudeau’s 2019 election tour. We were advised we would be departing from our Vancouver hotel at 6.45 a.m. (just over four hours after arriving), would then cover five campaign events over the course of 16 hours, before flying on a red-eye overnight from Victoria to Montreal.

The candidate himself seemed immune to the absurdity, pumped up on messianic zeal. Trudeau can be maligned for many things but not his staying power – he has the stamina of a water buffalo.

The rest of us were frazzled. My CBC colleague Tom Parry estimated the Trudeau campaign covered nearly 19,000 km in the last 10 days of the election.

Leaders’ tours are the second largest election budget item after advertising, consuming an estimated $5 million per campaign. But some are now questioning whether they are worth it.

The big parties charter a plane (or two in Trudeau’s case) and a couple of branded, bespoke buses to make whistle-stops in targeted ridings, where the candidate gives the same stump speech he or she has delivered a hundred times already. The campaign staff and the journalists are bonded, in the words of Timothy Crouse’s classic tale of the 1972 U.S. election, Boys on the Bus, by the “irresistible combination of camaraderie, hardship and luxury”.

My CBC colleague Tom Parry estimated the Trudeau campaign covered nearly 19,000 km in the last 10 days of the election

By the end of the campaign, everyone is numbed by fatigue, just as the scheduling becomes more and more surreal. Nobody could quite figure out why we were flying all the way to Vancouver from Ottawa, only to fly back east the next day. It turned out the Napoleons in the war-room wanted to hold a rally to a half-empty room in Jagmeet Singh’s riding so that the New Democrats were forced to redeploy resources to the NDP leader’s home turf.

Was it advantageous for reporters to be with the candidates? Observations on the big picture from the bus were of limited usefulness, given we only talked to Liberal partisans. But there were benefits to being on the road – even the most giddy of reporters was able to sense that Trudeau’s support was on the move in the final days, as the crowds grew bigger and more enthusiastic.

The candidates rarely veered from their carefully scripted talking points, which created tension with reporters. On the final weekend in Hamilton, Ont., the CBC’s Parry asked Trudeau if his final campaign dash was “an act of ambition or desperation”, to the sound of boos from the mothers and children the Liberal leader often used as the backdrop to his bromides.

Occasionally the mask slipped, such as when he expressed a rare moment of self-doubt over divisions in the country. “I wonder how, or if, I could have made sure we were pulling Canadians together,” he said in Fredericton, N.B., in the final week. The morning media availability offered the chance to grill leaders on their shortcomings – Trudeau’s penchant for dressing up; Andrew Scheer’s vagueness on his nationality, professional qualifications and belief system. But it was, by and large, predictable stuff from both the Liberal and Conservative leaders. More important was access to senior campaign staff, who sometimes let slip what was really going on.

From the campaign’s point of view, was this mammoth logistical exercise crucial to any success? The evidence from the 2019 election suggests questions may be asked about the effectiveness of the traditional leaders’ tour next time around.

Looking at the 39 ridings Trudeau visited in the last 12 days, it turned out the Liberals won just 13. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s conversion rate was even worse – of 30 ridings he hit in the post-French language debate final sprint, he won just six. Singh converted only four of the 21 ridings he visited in that period.

From the campaign’s point of view, was this mammoth logistical exercise crucial to any success?

There are all kinds of tactical reasons for visiting particular electoral districts. For example, the Conservatives held a rally in Richmond Hill, Ont., in the last days of the campaign, a seat they ended up losing by 112 votes. But the location was chosen as much because there was an available venue and it was close to the highway.

Similarly, Trudeau appeared at a large rally in Ontario’s York region in the riding of Thornhill, a safe Conservative seat. The choice was dictated by the availability of the venue at short notice and its proximity to a media market that projected Trudeau’s message across the GTA.

Scheer visited the riding of Essex in southwestern Ontario in the dying days, a seat the Conservatives won, which suggests the power of an appearance by a would-be prime minister is greater in rural areas than in the suburbs. But the Conservatives say their polling did not prove conclusively that the leader popping up to press the flesh in a riding boosted the local candidate’s chances.

Interestingly, the Liberals say their polling showed that a visit by Trudeau did add a couple of points to the local candidate’s support, particularly in the short term. Liberal candidates in Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam (Ron McKinnon), Kitchener-Conestoga (Tim Louis), Cumberland-Colchester (Lenora Zann), Longeuill-Charles-LeMoyne (Sherry Romanado) and Sherbrooke (Elizabeth Briere) owe their leader a debt of gratitude – all were visited in the last few days; all were won by a few hundred votes.

But a lot of carbon was burned in order to win two new seats and save three others. Even the people who run campaigns are not convinced the traditional leaders’ tour has a future.

Could the same result have been achieved by having the leader make announcements on a daily basis from a ballroom in Ottawa? The idea is not so absurd. The “front porch campaign” was used successfully in American politics by presidential candidates like James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and most famously William McKinley, who in 1896 conducted his campaign from his Canton, Ohio, home, while his rival William Jennings Bryan gave 600 speeches all over the U.S. Crucially, McKinley spent twice as much money on his campaign, using resources he saved by not travelling.

Given most campaign events preach to the converted, and most politically engaged people are connected via social media, this type of electioneering would work particularly well for smaller parties like the Greens and the People’s Party.

David Herle, a former campaign manager for Paul Martin and Kathleen Wynne, pointed out that Doug Ford was elected premier of Ontario without running a traditional tour and did not seem to suffer from lack of media coverage. “It made me wonder if it’s still de rigueur to do it,” he said.

In 2004 and 2006, he said it was his experience that Liberal campaigns would see a three point jump for a couple of days after Martin visited places where he was popular like B.C. “If I was running a campaign today, I’d still do it but there are signs of diminishing returns,” he said, as news organizations shrink in influence and resources.

“The problem is what comes next? It requires someone to reinvent the campaign. Maybe the whole thing will go online.” The lure for campaign managers is that cancelling the tour would boost their advertising budgets by 30 per cent or so.

There will be no complaints from this quarter if campaigns do become virtual. Nearly 30 years ago, my first editor advised me to never complain about the life of a reporter – most folks have jobs that involve heavy lifting or work outdoors. It was a privilege to transverse Canada time and again in the fall. For political journalists, general elections are like play-off hockey.

But covering a campaign is an unhealthy exercise – like running a marathon fuelled by pizza and booze. Seasoned campaigners know to eat at every opportunity because you never know when you’ll get the chance again. That included what became known as “night lunch”, the meal served as soon as we boarded the campaign plane, whatever the ungodliness of the hour. But there are only so many Holiday Inn Express breakfasts one can eat before entering the arena of the unwell.

In the digital, climate-conscious era, the traditional leaders’ tour feels archaic. Nothing much has changed since the days of the Boys on the Bus, except perhaps there are more girls. The feverish atmosphere is still “halfway between a high school bus trip to Washington and a gambler’s jet junket to Las Vegas”.

It may be time to rethink the election campaign.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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