How to win an election

By Sonia Théroux, January 2015

Bring disengaged citizens back to the polls.

When I was first approached last May to run Lisa Helps’ campaign for mayor of Victoria, I resolved that the motivation for giving up several months of my life needed to be about more than electing Lisa. I saw there was an opportunity to effect a less tangible but longer-term change: inspiring citizens who have been estranged from the political process to become engaged. I happen to believe that in order to ultimately shift governments to be more inclusive and respectful of the governed, this shift needs to be modelled in the campaigns that elect the governors.

Mobilizing a campaign requires choosing between either a fear-and-anger approach to motivating the troops, or accomplishing that with hope and inspiration. Guided by principles of respect and inclusivity, we chose hope and inspiration. In doing so, we did more than elect a new mayor. We brought together and activated a new constituency, one that’s now determined to stay engaged and keep contributing to the community.

In the beginning, Lisa was the underdog. We knew that to overcome that, we would need hundreds of volunteers. The first decision I made, more from intuition than strategy, was that in order to raise the voter turnout and bring the disengaged to the polls, we needed to attract the disengaged to the campaign. If people see themselves reflected in the campaigners, they’re more likely to get involved and vote. The typical war-like language and culture of politics, simplified to “us versus them,” selects for who will and won’t get involved. “I don’t like being a brand ambassador, so it helped that Lisa was non-partisan,” one volunteer said to me.

At some of the early meetings, of the dozens of volunteers at the table, Lisa, Jane Sterk and I were often the only women present. As well, Lisa and I, in our late 30s, were among the youngest. I was struck by the realization that we would need more youthful energy and ideas, more women, and more people willing to take on the often menial work of campaigning once we moved from strategizing to implementation.

At that time, many on the team were disenchanted with our incumbent mayor. There were legitimate misgivings about the handling of “the blue bridge,” about open democracy and transparency, and about the perceived dysfunctions of City Hall’s processes which were handicapping small businesses across the city.

My concern with adopting these issues as the raison d’être for the campaign was that they would not resonate with people who were disconnected from city politics. 

This had to be about more than Dean Fortin or the Johnson Street Bridge. This needed to be about working with people and ideas across differences that speaks to a new kind of politics. Respect and collaboration instead of politics as “blood sport,” as Lisa wrote in her “Heart-Centred Politics” blog. 

Negative political campaigns anger and divide voters. They may get some votes, but they also perpetuate cynicism and disengagement by reinforcing the notion about candidates that “they’re all the same; none of them are worth my vote.” And so roughly half of Canadians are not inspired to take part in elections. Entire segments of the population have voluntarily disenfranchised themselves. I took this very much to heart in choosing our campaign’s tone.

We chose to communicate what we were working for, as opposed to what we were fighting against. We shared Lisa’s vision that placed people, community and respect at the core of political discourse, above parties and beyond dogmatic thinking. This vision embraced outside-the-box thinking and valued creativity and disagreement. One volunteer, who fancied himself very different from the rest in his opinions, repeatedly marvelled at how welcome he felt, and about the lack of drama and conflict on the team. “What have other campaigns you’ve volunteered for been like?” I asked. “Not kind,” he replied.

We were often dismissed as being overly optimistic and naïve, too beholden to hope, too young, inexperienced, arrogant. We were taking risks and breaking rules. You can’t change anything without taking measured risks.

One risk was, dare I say it, running an unintentionally “feminine” campaign. We used words like “collaboration,” “listening” and “love.” Some critics of our campaign dismissed these as “soft.” These words couldn’t possibly reflect the true intentions of someone serious about running for political office, the critics suggested. But ultimately, these words resonated with—and inspired—many people who helped build the campaign.

Our campaign office was purposefully made to look homey from the street, in contrast to the typical austerity of a pop-up campaign shop. We chose to open the office quite early in the campaign to give the team a home and to welcome the community. We wanted passersby to feel they could walk in and ask questions. They did, and some became first-time volunteers.

At the core of our campaign culture was a goal to “capacity build,” to initiate new volunteers to campaigning and give them opportunities to learn and take on responsibilities or situations that were relatively new to them. Conscious effort was made to address fears and to ensure all felt welcome and appreciated. Over half of the core team were doing their jobs for the first time, certainly within a political context, and they rose to the challenge.

Starting early meant we were running a marathon rather than a sprint, so we needed to keep the intensity and stress of campaigning in check. Keeping people at the centre of our focus meant taking care of each other. One volunteer initiated free yoga classes for volunteers—by volunteer instructors—twice a week. There also needed to be fun. As the campaign ramped up, I summoned the team upstairs most afternoons for “dance break,” which was exactly that: one or two songs’ worth of silly dancing to reset our brains during that lull in the day. Not to mention the team building involved in choreographing a group to do the chicken dance.

All of these oddities became a source of both criticism and curiosity as we actively used our social media channels to show the faces and tell the story of the campaign. That story, we felt, was our greatest strength. As election day drew near, more and more people offered to help, citing the positive culture of the campaign as what had attracted them.

In fact, our social media team was a group of amateurs insofar as they were not innately political animals. It took some bruising and educating for everyone to get up to speed about the common phenomenon of social media “trolls” on political campaigns. A “troll” is tasked with wasting a campaigner’s time, energy and morale on fruitless and often vitriolic exchanges. I found myself private messaging our social media supporters, advising them to disengage and reallocate their energy to genuinely curious, undecided voters. Avoiding distractions became part of the overall strategy. When other campaigns started attacking us we took a little time to digest the attacks but quickly returned to the work we planned to do: inspire Team Helps to connect with as many voters as possible. We kept to the knitting.

I had expected election day to feel crazy. Instead, it felt festive. With 20 to 40 people in the office at any given time, the spirit of positivity among the team was palpable. Yes, there was plenty of stress and adrenaline, and there were inevitably some glitches to work through as we systematically contacted every supporter we had identified on the campaign trail. But something else took over that day.

Maybe it was the sense that we’d done all we could, and we just needed to keep to the knitting for a few more hours. I’d like to think it had a lot to do with the fact that we had successfully built a community. And here it was, at work.

I was repeatedly moved by the efforts that so many brand new voters made to get their own community’s votes out. “I voted for the first time AND I texted every single person in my phone and reminded them to vote,” one volunteer told us. Information about polling stations and the importance of voting flooded social media from individuals and local businesses and organizations. Mission accomplished: voting was now cool.

All along, for me, this had been about elevating someone to office who much more closely reflected my values by gathering and empowering a community. It had not been about taking down the incumbent though, at times, I was inspired to take down “old politics”—a politics built on centuries of exclusive input, often as an answer to war, largely by privileged men. Ultimately, I was driven to elect a mayor who promised courage and authenticity in pursuit of a new, inclusive style of politics.

As we all now know, we won, and by only 89 votes. Though not the ideal outcome, this margin has sent the message to all those involved, and all who voted, that each of their efforts literally made the difference. As someone who has campaigned on the losing side many times, and ultimately felt unrepresented, I can personally attest to the galvanizing effect this has had on those who participated in the campaign. “One less volunteer could have made the difference. It’s always fun to be in the right spot to make an impact,” a first-time volunteer shared with me. “If I hadn’t done my little piece, an opportunity would have been lost.”

The impact of this experience on those hundreds of volunteers, and the momentum spurred by a dose of victory will no doubt carry to the 2015 federal election. Recently recruited as an organizer for one of the Victoria campaigns in that election, I am seeing that the enthusiasm to get involved that I witnessed on Team Helps is already in the air.

Sonia Théroux, former campaign manager for the Lisa Helps campaign, is happiest when applying her “generalist” skills and passion toward positive social change.