The quiet election: Where are the thunder sticks in the Nova Scotia election?

Campaign Thunder Sticks
In the 2012 provincial election, the Wild Rose Party deployed noisy thunder sticks at every rally for its leader Danielle Smith, as it looked to stage a high-energy television-friendly event every day. Wild Rose would lose this election but top political strategists like Brian Topp and Brad Lavigne say this kind of political theatre is a vital part of a modern campaign — except, apparently, in Nova Scotia. (David Akin/QMI Agency)

I and our Sun News Network reporters have been on campaign buses in federal elections and in elections in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and others. For the last four weeks, we’ve been following the New Democrat, Liberal, and Progressive Conservative leaders tours through the Nova Scotia election. (The campaign is nearing an end and the votes will be counted Tuesday).

One thing our reporters in Nova Scotia have noticed is how quiet — relatively speaking — the Nova Scotia campaign events are compared to others we have covered. Now, a lot of people might be happy to see a campaign free of those annoying thunder sticks, but I think you will find broad agreement among political operatives of all stripes, that putting together a tub-thumping, heart-pumping political rally can give a campaign some energy and help with voter turnout.

Don’t take my word for it – let’s turn to the now famous “Topp Memo” on how the NDP blew a lead and a chance at government in British Columbia.  Brian Topp was the campaign manager in BC and he and his partners know a thing or two about how to run successful campaigns.

[Leader Adrian Dix] rejected staged (sometimes contrived and manufactured) political events and set-pieces … Although he understood their political utility, he viewed bunting, lights, cameras, music and other political event tools as distractions and impediments to an authentic connection with voters present in the room.

Having diagnosed one of the problems with the Dix campaign, Topp provides recommendations:

Evening rallies should be high energy and show momentum, excitement and support for the Leader. At each of these campaign events, participants should be placed ‘in the shot’ in order to maximize the value of the visual.

Every event should be branded with appropriate visually consistent staging, podium art, handheld signs and banners. The Leader’s introduction and entrance should be managed and staged for maximum effect with a clear pathway in, surrounded by applauding supporters. Campaign music should be chosen for thematic and energy creating purposes. It should be captivating and excite the crowd and it should help tell the story.

Our reluctance to embrace the political theatre aspect of modern campaigning led to the BC NDP losing the “shot of the day” to the BC Liberals too often.

Now, I’ve had the chance to have a look at an advance copy of a book out next month by Brad Lavigne who, along with Topp, was one of the central players in designing, scripting, and organizing Jack Layton’s federal campaigns (and leadership run). The book is called Building the Orange Wave: The Inside Story Behind the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP and in it, Lavigne has lots to say about rallies and how important they are to the campaign’s mission:

If broadcast news were to give each campaign a seven-second shot that beamed into the living rooms of the nation, what did we want that shot to be? This was especially important for the NDP as the fourth party: we had to fight even to get on the broadcast news each night. If a news producer had three shots of equal quality from each campaign, we would likely end up on the editing room floor. But if our shot was more pleasing visually and made great TV, we’d increase our chances of making the cut.

Jack was warm and personable, so we always had him surrounded by people. Throngs of enthusiastic partisans also gave our campaign a sense of momentum. If the people at home could see themselves in the people with Jack, perhaps that’s where they belonged as well. We also staged specific people to sit or stand close to Jack so that they’d be in the shot. If we wanted to emphasize a particular demographic—women, young people or new Canadians—we’d place people from that group directly behind the leader. That way, they’d be visible while Jack talked to the cameras and the assembled press.

We had a strict rule about what kinds of signs would be displayed in the shot. Our U.S.-inspired handheld signs reinforced the message we wanted to convey. In the beginning of the campaign, they said “Strong Leader.” During the last week of the campaign to build momentum and inoculate against strategic voting, we switched to “United with Layton.” Nothing off-script would be permitted. Nothing was done by accident or left to chance.

Internally, we fielded complaints from a few corners about our strict sign policy. But we were spending millions on Jack’s tour to get our message out to a national audience, and we couldn’t let off-script signs confuse the message. We usually assigned the biggest guys on the tour crew to do the job of shepherding supporters with off-message signs to stand behind the news cameras, not in front of them.

So why are the campaigns in Nova Scotia so studiously avoiding these noisy, scripted rallies? Tune in tonight to my program, Battleground on Sun News Network where I’ll explore this issue in context of the Nova Scotia election campaign with Chief Election Correspondent Bryn Weese and others.  (Our first run is at 6 ET and we re-broadcast at 8 ET and at 8 Pacific)

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