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Campaigns & Elections: Lessons for 2016 from North of the Border

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Precision Co-Founder Jen O’Malley Dillon on the key takeaways from the Liberal victory in Canada for the U.S. presidential race.

Lessons For 2016 From North Of The Border

Jen O’Malley Dillon

At the start of Canada’s federal election campaign in August, the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) was in third place behind the ruling Conservatives and the opposition New Democratic Party.

But last Monday, the Liberals emerged victorious in a stunning rout, sweeping onto Parliament Hill with a majority and making Justin Trudeau the country’s new prime minister. So what happened, and what does it mean for our 2016?

By winning Canada’s parliamentary elections, the Liberals did more than buck conventional wisdom and post their best showing in 40 years. They also demonstrated the power of a data-driven, grassroots campaign and a consistent, optimistic message of economic growth. As we move deeper into the 2016 cycle, here are four key takeaways.

1. Nothing beats planning.

Much has been written about the election’s 78-day length — historically long by Canadian campaign standards yet notably brief compared to the seemingly endless U.S. cycles. But the foundation of the Liberals’ victory was laid well before the actual campaign began. In fact, LPC was hard at work building the infrastructure necessary to run a data-driven, grassroots-focused, tech-savvy, and cutting-edge campaign long before the public, or the media was engaged.

By optimizing their analytics and voter-targeting processes before the writ was called, Trudeau and his team methodically equipped themselves with the knowledge and understanding of the electorate needed to make smart, strategic decisions at crunch time, especially important for the allocation of limited resources.

When it comes to 2016, the work being conducted by the candidates and parties now will have a significant impact on the general election, and campaigns would be well advised to invest early in this sort of crucial foundation building.

2. Grassroots organizing and two-way communication is key to success.

“Hope & Hard Work” was more than a slogan for the Trudeau campaign — it was a hallmark of the Liberals’ massive, on-and-offline voter contact campaign. In fact, it was the largest in Canada’s history. By the first week in September, the campaign had knocked on more than five million doors, and Trudeau and Liberal candidates across the country spent months building grassroots organizations in their ridings, knocking on doors, and talking and listening to their communities.

The personal engagement from the candidates, campaign teams and volunteers not only garnered support but also helped limit the impact of negative attacks coming from the NDP and the Conservatives. The Liberals’ victory shouldn’t only demonstrate that the Obama model of grassroots organizing can work anywhere. It should also reinforce to the 2016 campaigns that ads alone, whether TV or online, aren’t enough to engage directly with voters. It still takes a bottom-up, community-by-community ground game to secure victory.

3. Optimism wins.

As the Liberals started to climb in the polls, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives chose to focus on divisive cultural issues to create separation from their opponents. Most notably, the Conservatives attempted to inflame the debate over whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear a niqab during official citizenship ceremonies. Meanwhile, Trudeau and the Liberals consistently emphasized the need to cut middle-class taxes and spur broad-based economic growth. Take note, Donald Trump: While mean-spirited and pessimistic rhetoric may play to the base early on, optimism almost always wins out in the end.

4. Winning teams stay disciplined, and they never limit their paths to victory.

Despite an avalanche of attacks from the Conservatives and the NDP, Trudeau’s team refused to take the bait. They stuck to their campaign plan and remained true to their leader’s positive vision and authentic message. The Conservatives, meanwhile, wagered on a narrow path to victory that hinged on using controversial wedge issues to poach culturally conservative Quebecers from the NDP.

That plan backfired when moderate Canadians across the country turned toward the Liberals’ strong, consistent message of moderate liberalism. Because of the work they had done before the election, Trudeau’s team knew they had the knowledge and tools to stick to their plan, ignore the noise, and maintain as many realistic pathways to victory as possible. When the race started to go in their direction, the Liberals had the organization on the ground and the ability to deploy their resources to maximal effect.

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