A lot has already been written about what went wrong with George Smitherman’s mayoral campaign, with John Lorinc’s post-election day piece in the Globe and Mail being perhaps one of the most widely read. Post-election media reflections of the Smitherman campaign contain both condemnation and celebration. After spending six weeks working on that campaign, immersed in an adventure that yielded a less than stellar response from the Toronto public, I come not to bury Ceaser nor to praise him, but rather to say something about the work of campaigning.
The reputation of politics as corrupt, self-interested, and filled with insiders is echoed in the not infrequent street-level taunt “How much are they paying you to canvass?” This is both a reflection of our lack of involvement in electoral politics and an all-too-easy cynicism that reinforces these negative perceptions. It is also a byproduct of naïve idealism, which is admirable in teenagers but not as attractive in anyone over the age of majority. It turns out that Plato was dreadfully wrong and Aristotle was quite correct – the ideal is often a paralytic in terms of political action.
With that reality in mind, when I conveniently had some spare time in early September I emailed a friend who had recently joined Smitherman’s campaign and asked if he needed a hand. We discussed a commitment of two to three days a week, which quickly morphed — as these things are wont to do — into 10 to 14 hours per day, until I found myself in a hotel room at 3 a.m. on October 25, drunk and exhausted after the ironically named “celebrtion” at the Guvernment nitghtclub. It was a celebration of sorts. George gave one his best speeches, classy and to the point but not the one we had all hoped to hear.
So what actually happens in a political campaign? Countless volunteers work their butts off to make sure that the phone rooms are staffed (we had one downtown and one in our Scarborough office), the canvassers are in the streets, the debates are attended, and the money is raised. Facebook and Twitter accounts must to be managed. Correspondence has to be answered. Pizza and sandwiches have to be brought in for the volunteers (and after six straight weeks of pizza, the thought of a slice of anything from a Toronto chain remains an unappealing prospect).
The backbone of the campaign’s “ground war” were local ward teams were made up exclusively of volunteers. Some of the ward leaders were experienced campaigners, while some were fresh faces that took initiative and accomplished more than they thought they could. Their job was to recruit and motivate local supporters to canvass, make phone calls, and attend the candidate’s events in their areas. We also asked the local enthusiasts to come up with ideas for appearances, such as selecting the bakery Smitherman should go to in Ward 15 on a Sunday. These questions may not have concerned issues like the funding of the extension of the Eglinton LRT to the Air-Rail Link, but they were still important to the process.
Smitherman’s team did have some paid staff members. There were a couple of expert political staff who gave up their vacation time to work on the campaign. But many of us were volunteers – people who simply believed in the candidate and decided to shelve school, business, and other job opportunities for the duration of the campaign. While some of us had been there for a matter of weeks, others had been doing this for nine months or more.
Like many office duties, campaign work has its own seemingly mundane responsibilities: coordinating door-to-door canvassing, tweeting talking points, phoning voters, putting up signs, meeting with staff, volunteers, and stakeholders, and designing and copywriting campaign literature. Still for those who do this work the experience each day is a discreet set of challenges to be solved. When someone walks into a campaign office mere weeks before election day and wants to discuss policy, the experienced staffers have to gently smile, welcome them in, and explain that right now the priorities are identifying the vote, recruiting other volunteers, having a presence at debates and events, and putting up lawn signs, and yes it’s all important. While the Smitherman team was a very able and engaging group with members from the centre left to the centre right and affiliations in all the major parties, at six weeks and counting it’s mostly about tactics and mechanics. On the ground level, the goal is clear: get the most number of voters out on E-Day.
As a ward campaigns coordinator, I spent my days talking, emailing, and meeting with key volunteers in all our priority wards. As mapped in Torontoist Smitherman’s election results were best in the areas where our ground volunteers were the strongest, with one significant exception: the Smitherman campaign had dedicated teams in all corners of Scarborough, an area won easily by Rob Ford. The results there perhaps best illustrate the limits of a ground war when the opposing tide is a crushing tsunami.
The day the Nanos poll put Smitherman 20 points behind was a day that the phones rang in more than they rang out. Suddenly, all those would-be supporters who had been busy with summer plans and school experienced a rude awakening. The challenge energized us. Our phone rooms became increasingly full, with volunteers materializing without us having had to seek them out first. Instead of giving the usual excuses and dismissals, more and more people began asking what we needed and how they could help.
When mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson bravely gave up her run to support Smitherman, her staff came on board and integrated into our mix. Former Rocco Rossi organizers also brought talent and energy to our final weeks. During these hectic last days a well-known Toronto man-about-town tweeted that he wished political work could be like The West Wing, but unfortunately that was just a TV show. He should have been working with us. While our dialogue was not always consistent with an Aaron Sorkin script (it was sometimes like a hybrid of The Wire and Trailer Park Boys) it was quick, smart, and action-oriented – the type of chat that energizes participants and provides positive reinforcement. I’ll let you in on a secret: working on an election campaign is a hell of a lot of fun. The Smitherman campaign also saw New Democrats, Liberals, Greens, and Conservatives putting aside party loyalties and working and laughing side by side.
In the end, though, we lost. And we lost by a margin big enough to know that it was not due to the ground war falling just a bit short. Losing by a mere 5,000 votes would have been a knife in the gut for the team and the election day committee because we would have felt that our failure to get out the vote had made the difference. Still, the realization that it was largely out of our hands was a cold comfort.