The most important election lesson – networks

So much has happened and, so little has changed. As Kinsella put it best before heading to the night, no one is happy. For me, I’m most saddened to see my friend Omar Alghabra lose, he’s smart, friendly, a great representative and an asset to Canadians – whether they voted for him or not. His loss is a loss for all of us.

So what lessons should the parties draw from last night – and in particularly the election’s biggest losers, the liberals?

Probably the most important lessons is both the strengths and limits of network effects in politics.

The Conservatives is by far one of the most networked parties for Canada’s political environment. Why is this? Because of their roots as the Reform party. Because they started from nothing – and were even feared by larger corporate funders who saw them as too radical – they developed and have come to rely on fund raising through individuals. This has two consequences. First, to fund raise successfully in this manner they must be keenly aware of what their network of individual donors think, so they are constantly in tune with their supporters listening to them and engaging them. Second, by relying on a network of grassroots contributors they have never relied on large corporate donors. Thus, when Chretien passed campaign finance reform and essentially eliminated institutional donations (from unions and corporations) he created an election fund raising ecosystem in which the conservative model was well positioned to thrive.

However, while their network enables Conservatives to raise money, it creates limits. Specifically, because the Conservatives are financially dependent on their core supporters they are constrained by how much they can moderate their message to expand their political support. The broader their appeal the harder it is to raise money from their base.

This is the Conservative dilemma. (It is also one shared by the Greens and the Bloc.)

In contrast the Liberals have almost the opposite problem. Over the past few decades liberals have become addicted to the easy money of a few wealthy individuals and large corporations. Rather then decentralized and networked, fund raising has been highly centralized – almost divorced from individuals. Unfortunately, the party has been slow to adapt since Chretien shut off this intravenous drip. Specifically, two interrelated  problems plague the party. 1) It is still wrestling to figuring out what infrastructure is needed to fund raise in this new individual donor-centric environment, and more problematically 2) to grasp that rethinking infrastructure alone is insufficient. Individual-centric fund raising will rethinking both the structure of the party and its relationship with individual members. Until the implications of individual-centric fund raising have been understood, fund raising – and thus effective campaigns – will remain a difficult endeavor.

But probably the party facing the biggest challenge – long term – is the NDP, the one party that can ignore networks and continue to survive. This is largely because the unions – which can no longer donate as much money as they once could – can still deliver boots on the ground to help out. In short the NDP is one party that need not cultivate a network in order to survive. This dependency means it will likely not put in place the infrastructure to enable organic growth. Consequently, growth will require an exogenous event, namely a Liberal collapse – something that while theoretically possible – is hard to imagine. As such, the NDP will continue to sit influence the debate indirectly, a role that satisfies some of its members while infuriating others.

6 thoughts on “The most important election lesson – networks

  1. janfromthebruce

    I disagree with your final point: “In short the NDP is one party that need not cultivate a network in order to survive. This dependency means it will likely not put in place the infrastructure to enable organic growth.”For one, NDP raises the 2nd largest amounts of money from individuals behind the Cons. This money does not come from unions but from individual supporters – nice try to discount this fact.Secondly, unions but mostly their individual members support the NDP through membership in the NDP and in their local riding association. And that is not a problem – as members recognize that the party that represents “everyday Canadians” the workers, is the NDP.

    Reply
  2. Kim Feraday

    David,I have to agree with the others here. Given their relative size, the NDP has done an outstanding job of fundraising. The Liberals could take a few lessons.

    Reply
  3. david_a_eaves

    Well – interesting comments all around. I've been looking into the numbers as per Jan and giant political mouses' suggestion and they are a little suspect. One big challenge… the Liberal leadership race which has helped tap out sources of funding and are often not included as donations. But this is all moot – the article is really for Liberals – the fact is that organic growth for the NDP will be challenging unless it wishes to moderate its message – something that its base would be uncomfortable with. The bigger question – for Liberals – is, can they fund raise like the Conservatives and NDP but with a larger network but more ideologically and geographically diverse base? More importantly, can they retool the party, from the ground up, to enable and encourage these types of donations?

    Reply

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