National Post with Melanee Thomas 20 October 2019
MONTREAL — They’re the ones knocking on doors, putting up signs, making phone calls, and serving as the cheering human backdrops behind Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh or Andrew Scheer.
But while they may not have the same visibility as the party leaders, volunteers play an integral part in any campaign and can make the difference between winning and losing in tight ridings, experts and political strategists say.
University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas says it’s complicated to measure the extent to which local candidates and their ground games can swing the vote.
But experts estimate it can provide a boost of between five and 10 per cent at the polls, which is more than enough to make the difference in an election widely seen as too close to call.
What’s clear, Thomas said, is that volunteers do the bulk of the labour of running campaigns, from data entry to manning tables at events, to identifying undecided voters and driving people to the polls on election day.
“They run the campaign, literally everything,” she said. That’s largely due to tight spending limits, which mean parties have to think carefully about how they distribute their funds.
Thomas, who is a visiting fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, says that while it’s true that most voters cast their ballots based on the national party leader, political scientists are shifting away from the view that the local campaigns don’t matter at all.
“The more nuanced definition that we have now is that often the local campaign is marginal to other factors, either individual (convictions), or it’s the national campaign or leaders that are turning the narrative,” she said in a phone interview.
“But in some districts, it’s the district campaign that matters a lot.”
Daniel Bernier of Earnscliffe Strategy Group says that while it’s true the national campaign matters more than local ones, volunteers are important in shaping the perceptions of the leader.
The presence of campaign signs or door-to-door canvassers can make a party seem more visible or approachable, and a mass of supporters greeting the leader at every campaign stop gives the impression of momentum.
“The candidate is an expression of that message or that image of what the leader is portraying, and the volunteer has to be carrying that,” said Bernier, who was chief of staff to former Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose.
More broadly, he said, volunteers can recruit family and friends, and their excitement helps overcome some of the cynicism inherent in politics.
Support for a party means nothing if people don’t vote, so volunteers can play an especially crucial role on election day. In the weeks leading up to the election, campaigns make lists of potential supporters and are willing to send volunteers to drive or even walk with them to the polls if necessary.
“It’s all about that final push,” said Melissa Lantsman, a political strategist with Hill+Knowlton who has served in a number of Conservative war rooms, including for Doug Ford’s successful campaign in the 2018 Ontario election.
“Any campaign within 500 to 1000 votes depends on the ground game.”
While Thomas says volunteers generally come from a more privileged background, they span the gamut in terms of age, background and life experience.
For Joan White Calf, a 65-year-old Green volunteer in the riding of Edmonton Griesbach, it’s her first time volunteering on a national political campaign.
While she’s long supported the party, she said she became motivated to get more involved after getting a chance to see party leader Elizabeth May speak.
She said her worries over a climate crisis and what it could mean for her grandkids’ future has her going far out of her comfort zone, doing something she never thought she would: knocking on the doors of strangers.
Even in Tory-blue Edmonton, she said the experience canvassing voters has been positive.
“Only one person reacted really strongly when I mentioned the Green party, it was like I was talking about mass murderers,” she said. “The rest have been fine.”
On the other end of the volunteer age spectrum is 23-year-old Montreal law student Marie-Eve Lachapelle, who began volunteering for the Liberals in 2015 after reaching out to candidate Melanie Joly on Facebook.
Four years later, she has appeared in a Liberal ad and is spending up to five hours a day volunteering for Joly’s re-election campaign, making calls and knocking on doors to spread what she sees as the party’s progressive vision.
She says the experience can be emotional at times, and she admits to having cried after meeting citizens who described their everyday struggles.
“I found it very important because you meet people with real problems,” she said. “I’m a lucky woman, but some people have it more difficult.”
Lachapelle and White Calf are likely to have different experiences come election day. The young student feels confident Joly will hold her seat. White Calf, on the other hand, represents a candidate without much of a shot at winning.
But for both, the importance of participating in the process is as important as the result.
“I may or may not be a difference, and we may all be doomed, but at least I’m trying,” White Calf said.