Politicians and the media are forever telling us: “Every vote counts." For Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, on election night, 685 votes counted for a great deal.
That's the number of votes separating Progressive Conservative candidate Rob Milligan from Liberal incumbent Lou Rinaldi in the riding of Northumberland-Quinte West in the 2011 general election in Ontario. Six hundred and eighty-five votes. That's all that stood between Premier McGuinty making history and winning a third consecutive majority. The all elusive fifty-fourth seat.
How did this happen? Especially considering the fact that the Liberals won virtually every poll in the two biggest towns in the riding, Cobourg and Port Hope. Well, for one thing - shoe leather. The PC candidate, unlike Rinaldi, didn't rely upon expensive mailings and flashy web sites. Milligan walked. And walked. And walked some more. He took nothing for granted, didn't count on central campaign to deliver his message, and in short simply outworked his opponent.
But there was one other reason Rob Milligan won this riding. The contractors of the Ontario Electrical League.
Back in the spring, the OEL decided to do something about the apprenticeship ratio issue - a government requirement, unique to Ontario, forcing companies to have three certified electricians per apprentice instead of a 1:1 ratio like almost every other province and territory in Canada - by venturing into the Ontario provincial election campaign in a big way. In an unprecedented move, the organization decided to engage a public relations firm to design and deliver a campaign, targeting a number of Liberal-held ridings in order to influence the outcome of the election.
Money was raised, mostly from individual members of the Ontario Electrical League in the ridings to be targeted, and a campaign speaking to the unfairness of Ontario's current apprenticeship ratios was created. The OEL also registered with the office of Ontario's Chief Electoral Officer in order to legally participate in the election as a third-party advertiser.
After careful consideration, it was decided that Chatham-Kent-Essex, Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, Northumberland-Quinte West, Ottawa West-Nepean, Peterborough and Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry would be the six ridings targeted. A series of attack ads, linking the local Liberal candidate with Premier McGuinty, would appear on the sides of buses, on local radio stations and in local newspapers. A flyer explaining the apprenticeship ratio issue in greater detail would be delivered to every home in each of the targeted ridings.
That was the plan. However, along the way, a number of challenges arose, which led to some significant changes to the Ontario Electrical League's original strategy.
For instance, most of the municipalities refused to allow political ads to run on the sides of their buses. So the bus board ads were turned into banner ads, which ran in all the local newspapers. In addition to this, there were no decent photographs of Premier McGuinty and the Liberal candidates to be found, at least none which could be successfully enlarged and reproduced, which is why an artist had to create original illustrations instead. Finally, a local newspaper in one of the ridings forgot to insert the flyer into the September 15th issue. Out of desperation, the OEL had them insert the piece into the October 4th issue - just two days before voters would go to the polls.
It must have worked, however, as the Progressive Conservative candidate won that riding by a wide margin. In fact, the PC Party won three out of the six ridings the contractors of the Ontario Electrical League targeted - including the most important riding of them all, as it turned out, Northumberland-Quinte West.
One question remains. How did a campaign consisting of a bunch of attack ads succeed? Especially in Canada, where voters tell us over and over again that they don't like negative advertising, and especially after the Progressive Conservative attack ads portraying Premier McGuinty as the Tax Man failed so badly in connecting with voters.
Simple. It was creative. And it was different.
Unlike a typical U.S.-style attack ad, where the headline would have read something like: "Premier McGuinty and Lou Rinaldi don't care about our young people!", this campaign asked a simple question of voters: "Wouldn't it be something if Dalton McGuinty and Lou Rinaldi really cared about our young people?" The implication remains the same, but because it was posed as a question instead of a simple declaration, the voters were the ones who framed the answer in a negative light, not the OEL.
Another thing that made these ads so different is that the illustrations of the Premier and his candidates showed them smiling, not snarling like in the Tax Man ads. The combination of Premier McGuinty's Alfred E. Neumanesque "What? Me worry?" grin, along with the Liberal mantra of "Don't worry, be happy!" throughout the campaign, proved to be the perfect combination to inspire apathetic voters to get off their collective duffs and boot the local Liberal candidates out the door.
Finally, there was the tagline: "Think before you vote," which appeared at the end of each piece - including the radio ads. The idea here was to get voters to think twice about who they were voting for. In particular, for Premier McGuinty's supporters, the not so subtle message was: "If you're thinking of voting Liberal, think again."
Although Premier McGuinty remains in power for now, with what he is describing as a "major minority" (and some wags in the media have laughingly dubbed a "minor majority"), the fact remains that he's on a much shorter leash now than he was before the writ was dropped on September 7th, when the Liberals held 70 of the 107 seats here in Ontario.
All because the contractors of the Ontario Electrical League had the courage to speak out and stand up for our young people.
Proving once again that...every vote counts!
Stephen Skyvington is the President of PoliTrain Inc. He ran the campaign for the contractors of the Ontario Electrical League that denied Premier McGuinty his majority. Mr. Skyvington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.