Behind Michael Ignatieff’s snappy “Jack and Gilles” one liner dismissing Stephen Harper’s coalition charges, or explanations for Manitoba Conservative MP Shelly Glover’s “past her expiry date” comment, are dozens of Liberal and Conservative party operatives toiling in utter obscurity.
Today’s major party campaign “war rooms,” the partisan nerve centres of the 2011 election, are objects of fascination for the media but for the most part retain an air of mystery.
That not much is known about the war rooms, how they operate and who is behind the Great Oz’s curtain, is precisely how the parties prefer the situation. While the media may be invited to an initial tour in order for the party to prove it is competent and well-funded enough to have a war room, access to the sanctum is strictly forbidden once the campaign begins – other than of course for tightly scripted media briefings.
The machinery of campaigning was first portrayed in literature by James Joyce in the short story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” In the nearly 100 years since The Dubliners, much has changed in the management of election campaigns, still the essentials remain – the division of labour into myriad small tasks, the importance of the campaign manager to bring all the pieces together and the need for a cause to motivate people to work much harder than they normally might at their regular job.
An updated view of the “committee room” would start with a basic definition of what is the purpose of the war room. It is a) the headquarters of the national campaign and b) the central office for the 308 constituency campaigns. For the party in power, the war room is the bureaucracy of a government-in-exile: for the opposition it is the bureaucracy of a government-in-waiting.
Physically, the war room is generally a floor in an inexpensive and non-descript suburban office building full of mostly young men and women with a few old guys lurking in the back. The furniture is rented and the trappings are sparse and functional. All of which raises the question why the government itself cannot be run in such a cost-conscious manner.
If you were to somehow get past the electronic keypad and the bored security guard, you could wander through the floor finding these islands of clumped work stations. The largest unit is the leader’s Tour office. Their responsibility is to make all the arrangements for the hundreds of meetings, greetings and speeches that the party leader will make during the course of even short campaign.
Pressure to perform permeates the air in Tour: Either the leader gets to Saskatoon or he or she does not and the media lie in wait for such little slip ups as the leader in St. John and the luggage in St. John’s.
As the leader’s schedule can change daily and rapidly, the Tour department work the longest hours and only get a breather when they are certain the boss is in bed, with the door locked from the inside.
Next in the archipelago of the war room will be the isle of candidate support. These people liaise with the local campaigns making sure they have signs and brochures, are ready should the leader or an important speaker come to town and more or less stick to the script of the overall campaign. The latter always causes headaches. Constant tension arises from what the local campaign thinks they need to say to win support in the constituency and what the national campaign thinks they need to say to bolster and amplify the national messages.
It is the bane of the war room when a local candidate decides that what he or she heard from a cousin has more appeal to voters than the messaging for which the top campaign officials will have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to write, test in focus groups and polls and most importantly convinced the leader to approve. A party cannot afford one war room staffer for each constituency so an individual worker will cover generally 8 to 10 constituencies grouped by definable regions within the province.
Working closely with the Candidate Support desks will be much smaller provincial and regional desks that look after broader political and message issues. For instance, a Quebec desk and a British Columbia desk are set up in order to deal with the insular dynamics of those duchies.
A bigger island next door will be the Media Unit. The leader’s campaign bus, plane or hay wagon will have its own elite media unit including a couple of official spokespersons. The Media Unit in the war room is well away from the spotlight of the leader’s tour (of which more will be written later). They monitor the local media, push out media releases following up with phone calls to receptive reporters and field the hundreds of media questions that flow in every day.
They also run the now obligatory party television studio which besides serving as a media centre for press conferences also produces television clips to send to local TV stations. The national television news services tend not to run these clips preferring their own tapes. However, a television station in rural Ontario is not going to send their one camera person on any leaders’ campaign bus. They appreciate a bit of unique tape to which they can add their own commentary.
Our tour of the war room is not complete, but no one spends just one day visiting the Hawaiian Islands. More to come on the InterChange tour of backroom Canada.