During campaigns, the platform or policy director rallies a diverse collection of people and organizations around a common set of objectives.

Crafting a party’s campaign platform is a balancing act: Platform directors must not only consider competing demands from within the party, but also balance policy goals with tight fiscal limits. They must weigh the desire to win through bold policy proposals with the necessity of setting an achievable agenda. Platform directors also serve as policy leads, providing answers to journalists about their party’s commitments and those of their opponents.

A party’s platform is among its most coveted documents. Leaks can derail an entire campaign, as they expose the party’s plans to scrutiny before they are ready. For these reasons, only select people have access to the full platform as it is being developed. The platform director, also known as the policy director, is at the centre of this group, which typically consists of policy experts from political parties, academia, or the bureaucracy. Few platform directors are eager to reveal their trade secrets, and on-the-record interviews are rare. As a result, we must mine memoirs and insiders’ accounts for brief glimpses into the world of platform design.

The platform drafting process has become more professionalized since the early 1990s. Manifestos are no longer crafted by cadres of elites walled off from the influences of public opinion. Rather, platform directors work with public opinion and communications specialists to determine which issues matter most to voters, and which ones voters trust their party most to handle. Properly crafted, the platform allows the party to ride the wave of public opinion and capitalize on “issue ownership,” – appearing to be extremely competent on one or more particular issues.

Platforms serve vital purposes

While the media gloss over much of the platforms’ contents in favour of stories on personality and gamesmanship, and few voters base their decisions on specific policy initiatives, platforms serve many vital purposes. Central to modern election campaigns, they provide a compendium of policy commitments and may serve as plans for governance. They allow voters to assess parties based on how well their promises and priorities align with their own preferences, and provide the winning party with an agenda to govern.

The platform is also a key part of the party’s brand or personality. It binds campaign teams together, and connects them to key supporters. It can bind the party’s various factions, providing a rallying point and keeping everyone on message. This is a tall order for national parties whose bases are divided along ideological, generational, regional, ethnic, and other lines. At the same time, the platform serves as the central thread for the party’s campaign communication. The platform captures all forms of messaging — about the leader, policy, opposition contrast, and so on.

The platform director’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the party’s core commitments align with the priorities of their accessible voters and stakeholders. This issue landscape is identified through polling and on-the-ground intelligence from party volunteers and candidates.  A platform helps a diverse collection of people and organizations to gel around a common set of objectives and policy aims. The expected and desired reactions of stakeholders place a constraint on the coherence and workability of policies.

The platform director holds the pen on early drafts of the document. Platform directors do not work alone, however. They consult widely, engaging not only with party members and executives, but also with elected officials, including candidates, caucus, and critics or members of the cabinet, as well as allied interest groups and stakeholders. Parties in government also consult with public servants. The platform director may also work with academics, think tanks, policy experts, economists, and public finance experts. Public opinion and marketing experts are engaged to ensure the platform resonates with the target audiences.

This stage can last anywhere from a few years to a few months before the campaign begins. Fixed election dates have helped to make the timing somewhat more predictable. Changes in leadership and the possibility of snap elections can speed up the process.

The complex art of building a platform

As the campaign nears, platform directors begin assembling the platform document. It must be a living text that is consistent with the party’s brand and campaign strategy. Platforms need to be flexible enough to adapt over the course of the campaign. For this reason, the platform director must work with the campaign manager, the communications director, the leader’s chief of staff, and others to ensure the platform aligns with other elements of the party’s strategy.

Platform directors do not work with a blank canvas. Commitments made in past elections often act as a foundation for the platform, as does the leader’s own leadership campaign platform if he or she was selected after the last general election. Parties in government often construct throne speeches and budget documents with an eye to the next campaign. Policy announcements at the end of a government’s term also provide ingredients for the party’s platform.

Platform directors must also keep the party’s policy manuals and declarations in mind. These are usually produced though resolutions passed at party conventions between elections. Resolutions that align with the campaign narrative may make their way into the platform, whereas those deemed not to align might be excluded. In this sense, the platform is a meeting point between the party’s grassroots policy declarations, the leader’s prerogatives, and the broader electorate’s priorities.

At the same time, the platform director must assemble a coherent set of workable policies. This includes providing a realistic costing, which the platform director oversees with the help of economists and experts in public finance. The costing of a platform places a natural check on a political party, which could otherwise propose policies without limit. The adoption of a fiscal constraint is the choice of the political party itself, subject to expectations of the public and the party’s base (e.g. a balanced budget, a declining debt-to-GDP ratio, etc.).

In 2019, the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) was available for the first time to support federal parties that wanted an independent costing of their campaign proposals. It was an iterative process, with a lot of back-and-forth between the PBO and the parties as the fiscal costs of desired policies were estimated and then tailored according to the available fiscal room.

Building a platform is not like assembling a catalogue of promises. Care needs to be taken to determine the ordering and amount of space devoted to the various policy planks. Promises that appear earliest in the platform document tend to carry more weight, while those at the end are less central to the party’s desired ballot question.

To be successful, the party’s priorities should align with those that the public trusts it most to address. However, it is not possible to play only to the party’s strengths. If a party owns a stable of social policy issues but is weaker on the economy, it still needs to include mention of the latter. In most cases, the platform director mentions but downplays the issues that the public does not trust the party to handle, by giving these issues less space and placing them near the end of the platform. On other occasions, he or she may use a more pro-active approach, taking the public’s side on issues traditionally unfavourable to the party. This strategy counters charges that the party has a hidden agenda or that it is out of step with public opinion, although it risks alienating members of the party’s base.

A platform director can do nothing without the support of a high-quality communication team, which determines the right rhetoric and imagery to convey the party’s position. This type of wordsmithing is crucial. The style differs if the party wishes to project itself as competent and steady, for instance, versus being visionary and path-breaking.

The scripting team re-works the platform team’s policy document to ensure consistency with the campaign narrative and to improve its readability. Various drafts are passed back and forth between the platform and scripting teams until a final version is released.

The platform team becomes the party’s de facto policy team during the campaign. The director responds to questions from the communication team about the objectives, costs, and benefits of various promises, and ensures that the media and public policy experts understand the policies. As well, the director leads research into opponents’ platforms by fact-checking them or drawing contrast, and helping the communication team underline those contrasts in the media.

Releasing the platform

Strategists continue to market-test the platform until weeks or days before its official release. This refinement phase involves a combination of focus groups, surveys, and — more recently — crowd sourcing. For example, the Liberal party used a crowd-sourcing app in 2015 in which users could pick their favourite policies, thus helping the party to identify the most popular planks of its platform, and refine it accordingly before its official release. Other parties use data analytics on their websites and social media feeds. All parties rely on feedback from candidates and party volunteers on what voters are saying at the doorstep. However, once the leader has signed off on the platform following this refinement stage, there is little room for input from outside the leader’s inner circle.

One of the more artful decisions confronting the campaign team concerns the timing of the platform’s release. Releasing the platform before the writs are dropped, or in the opening days of the campaign, conveys a sense of confidence and openness. However, an early release can reduce the impact of announcing a new policy every day in the campaign, expose the party to prolonged scrutiny, and risk that other parties may adopt or steal ideas. Early release also means the party cannot adapt to changing circumstances during the campaign.

Going late allows the party to test the popularity of its core commitments. It can refine its style and tone before firming them up in the final document. Late release also allows the party to maximize its message potential, whereas issuing the document early removes the mystery, rhythm, and momentum of daily policy releases. However, it is risky to release a platform too late. Critics can allege that the party is not giving voters adequate time to scrutinize their policy commitments, especially if the platform is released after the leaders’ debates. Such charges may feed into a narrative of the party having a hidden agenda. Nevertheless, there is little to no direct evidence of voters penalizing parties for late platform releases.

After a successful campaign, some platform directors play key roles in the transition into government. They may be appointed to senior roles in policy, such as in the Prime Minister’s Office. This helps ensure that campaign promises are translated into policy plans in the new government. In other cases, directors simply return to partisan duties or work outside government.

Platform building is a complex and challenging craft. Platforms are more than simply collections of policy proposals. They symbolize the compromises required to unite disparate groups of supporters and stakeholders behind a common vision. They represent an attempt to market that vision to a broader pool of accessible voters. A party’s success or failure is not solely attributable to the strength of its platform. Yet the challenges faced by platform directors over the course of a campaign can provide good insight into the party’s overall strategy and performance.

This article is part of The Insider’s View Behind the Scenes of Election Campaigns special feature.

Photo: Conservative leader Stephen Harper holds a copy of his party’s platform during a campaign stop in Richmond, BC on Oct. 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward