Is the big blue machine slowing down?

Stephen Harper has faced many a scandal before, and has weathered each one. In the lead up to the 2011 election, it seemed like something new popped up each day – there was Bev Oda’s orange juice and trouble with “nots”, Bruce Carson’s fraud charges and escorts, Jason Kenney’s use of government resources to target “very ethnic” voters, “in and out”, and a historic contempt of parliament vote.

The end result was a majority government.

So it’s premature to say what impact, if any, the Mike Duffy Senate brouhaha will have on Harper’s re-election hopes.

While scandals befalling the Harper government aren’t new, the one thing we’ve never had reason to doubt was the Conservative Party ground game. They’ve raised more money than the Liberals and NDP combined every year since taking power and had 40,000 more donors than either opposition party in 2012. Their outreach into ethnic communities has become legendary, and there’s very good reason to believe the reason they regularly out-perform their poll numbers on Election Day is because of a superior get out the vote apparatus. If you go to Liberal conventions, the policy workshops are full of Liberals trashing everything the Conservative Party stands for, and the party renewal workshops are full of Liberals demanding their party copy every single aspect of the Conservative Party ground game.

So even when the poll numbers look bleak, there has always been a sense Harper can bounce back, and that the Big Blue Machine will microtarget and GOTV him an extra 4 or 5 points.

So this…this was unexpected:

Conservative campaign database fiasco costs party millions

The Conservative Party of Canada has scrapped a multi-million dollar database paid for by money raised through supporter contributions.

At least $7 million and perhaps as much as $9 million was used to pay for a database the Conservative Party was developing to track its supporters and donors.

The party is now reverting to its old system, the Constituent Information Management System or CIMS. That program is being rolled back out to MPs and riding associations over the next few months, starting with the four ridings facing November by-elections, according to a memo sent by the party’s acting executive director.

This story will soon be forgotten, but I suspect its impact on the next election will be far greater than anything Mike Duffy said last week. To begin with, the $7 million dollar price tag effectively snuffs out a year’s worth of fundraising advantage for the Conservatives. Seven million may not go as far as it used to, but it still pays for a lot of attack ads during Hockey Night in Canada.

Still, it’s not like their war chest can’t withstand the hit. The larger concern for the Conservatives is what kind of impact this might have on future fundraising efforts.

The first principle of political fundraising is that you convince the donor their donation will go towards a cause they believe it, be it an issue, getting a candidate elected, or stopping “the Ottawa media elite“. The donor expects their donation will help make a difference, no matter how small. They certainly don’t want it swallowed up by what Conservatives themselves are calling a “$7 million dollar boondoggle“.

It’s true this wasn’t a case of money being embezzled. It wasn’t spent on junkets or $12 orange juice. It may even have been a wise investment that simply didn’t pan out. But anyone thinking about donating $20 to stop those gun hating Liberals must now wonder if their donation will be put to good use. Moreover, the timing of this leak means gossip about the failure of C-Vote will dominate the hospitality suites at this weekend’s Conservative Party convention.

This failure also shatters the myth that the Conservative ground game is miles ahead of the competition. Even if they recover financially, they’re back where they were two years ago in terms of voter tracking, giving the competition time to catch up.

Not surprisingly, the Conservative Party has denied this “boondoggle” is quite as bad as the CBC report makes it out to be. Even if that’s true, this still must be considered a set back, and yet another sign that the vaunted Conservative machine is not running as smoothly as it once did.

As PunditsGuide noted back in January, what was a $7 million gap between the Conservatives and the cumulative Liberal/NDP fundraising totals in 2010 narrowed to under $2 million last year. The number of Conservative donors also shrunk, during a period where the Liberals increased their donor base by 37%, and the NDP by 91%. The CPC is still ahead, and their fundraising efforts have been strong so far in 2013 – but the gap is narrowing.

That means less money for television ads, though the failure of this spring’s “Justin Trudeau is too sexy to be PM” campaign further casts doubts on how effectively funds are being spent. Perhaps that ad campaign did plant seeds of doubt about Trudeau that won’t germinate for a year or two, but has been far less immediate or devastating that “Just Visiting” or “Not a Leader”.

These setbacks aren’t nearly as riveting as a Mike Duffy press conference, but they represent far more ominous signs that the Tories are in for a rough ride in 2015.

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4 responses to “Is the big blue machine slowing down?”

  1. Cool story. Unfortunately not correct though… the party put out a note saying “On Wednesday night the CBC reported that the Conservative Party of Canada was “scrapping a multi-million dollar database” due to complaints. This is not true.

    While we have no intention of discussing campaign strategy with the CBC or any reporter, we will continue to have the best political technology in the next election as a result of our investments in CIMS and C-Vote.

    As we have said, CIMS will be the primary tool we use in our ridings to fight and win elections, while C-Vote will continue to operate and to provide advanced voter tracking and targeting.”

    • That e-mail from the CPC screamed “spin” and “damage control”.

      The fact is C-Vote was always intended to be used at the constit level, and now it isn’t. Maybe they’ve been able to scrap some value from it, but I have a hard time seeing how it would be an improvement over CIMS when it comes to tracking and targeting, if it can’t even collect any data.

      I’ll admit I don’t know the entire story, but that certainly sounds like a fired campaign manager being given an “advisory” role on the campaign to save face.

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