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Oct 15 / Great Apes

Why Is Harper Bringing Out The Ford Brothers Now?

Stephen Harper has started doing campaign appearances with Rob and Doug Ford.  A lot of people find this confusing, given how divisive the Fords are.  It seems especially confusing in light of the Conservatives’ drug messaging: they’ve taken out ads claiming (falsely) that Justin Trudeau wants to make marijuana more accessible to children, while Rob Ford has admitted to smoking crack cocaine in the recent past.  This strikes people as hypocritical and confused messaging.  But I don’t think it’s too difficult to see how it might actually make sense.

Part of the problem is that people mistakenly view voters as making rational, informed decisions about who to vote for on the basis of policy decisions.  But politics are considerably more tribal than rational.  To be clear, I don’t mean “people I disagree with are irrational”; it’s true across the political spectrum.  Voters identify with specific parties or movements in such a way that things are considered right or wrong by virtue of who they’re associated with.  One obvious example: many Democrats who vehemently opposed NSA wire-tapping under George W. Bush have become loud defenders of NSA wire-tapping under Barack Obama.  Same with drone strikes, and so forth.  It’s important to remember that, for many voters, Rob Ford is part of their tribe and so his specific actions are less important than his tribal affiliation.

The tribal nature of politics helps get to my theory on why the Conservatives are bringing the Fords out to campaign for them.  We’re now just four days away from election night.  At this point, there probably isn’t going to be a lot of shift in who voters support.  Policies have been explained, slogans have been repeated, ad campaigns have been purchased.  But what might matter is something known as “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV).  GOTV is the processes by which, on election day, parties try to get the people they’ve identified as their supporters to the polls to actually cast ballots.

I’m highly skeptical of the value of GOTV.  I think politicians and pundits both dramatically over-state the value of the “ground game”.  For example, many people argued that it didn’t matter if the NDP was leading in the polls in Quebec in 2011 because they didn’t have staff or volunteers on the ground in Quebec, and thus couldn’t turn their theoretical support into actual votes.  Obviously the NDP won an enormous electoral victory in QC with no ground game.  Nevertheless, the importance of GOTV is something that political parties deeply believe in.

At this point most people seem to believe that the election is going to be a relatively close one between the Conservatives and the Liberals (I’ve stated my own deep skepticism of electoral projections in Canada).  In a close election, political parties become more convinced than ever of the importance of GOTV and the ground game.  In particular, the Conservatives likely fear that the Liberals are poised to take seats in the GTA’s suburbs, which have been a Conservative stronghold in recent years, and where the Fords have typically found considerable support.  The reasoning behind bringing the Fords out is not that Harper believes they’re going to attract new voters, but that they need to get their base in the GTA out on election day in order to hold on to seats that have been an important part of the Conservatives’ electoral base for much of Stephen Harper’s time as CPC leader.  They likely fear that if they lose the GTA suburbs, they will lose the election.  So teaming up with the Fords is a perfectly rational response.

The plan may not work (or I may be wrong about what the plan actually is).  But if you think about a federal parliamentary campaign as a bunch of small elections rather than as one big one, it’s not too difficult to see why Harper might be teaming up with such a potentially toxic family.

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