(This article has been translated into French)

One of the paramount missions of local teams in an election campaign is to relay the daily talking points – or scripted messages – from the national team and to amplify them. The candidate in each constituency thus acts as the regional voice for their party’s electoral platform. Nevertheless, they must also play up their personal electoral commitments. Ideally, messages crafted for local voters will fit naturally into the national campaign framework. But while it’s rare, in some places, particularly Quebec, and for some candidates, it’s important to tweak the national message to fit local circumstances.

To promote overall coherence, the national campaign provides local teams with various communication tools: visual assets designed for social media or templates for signs and brochures. The national campaign also advises local teams on advertising, media outreach and social media tactics. Unsurprisingly, political parties usually keep a tight control on local campaigns’ content and promises. Ultimately, only strong figures with charismatic personalities and deep roots in their constituencies can afford to deviate from the messages put forward at the national level.

Inside the constituency-level election campaign

In Quebec, the will of local teams to adapt the national campaign to regional specificities often leads to the release of a separate platform for the province. This is particularly useful because significant national promises might not resonate with the electorate in the province. Consider the flagship 2021 campaign promises of the Liberals for a national $10-a-day child care system and of the NDP for universal prescription-drug coverage, both of which have already been in place in Quebec for several years.

Regional platforms can also be a means to respond to critics. That was the case in the September federal campaign, particularly after Quebec Premier François Legault’s call for Quebecers to be wary of those federal parties that he said are too centralizing and therefore dangerous to his government’s ambitions. In this context, during the federal campaign, the NDP proposed a separate Quebec platform which sought to counter Legault’s assertions by promising asymmetrical, co-operative and respectful federalism based on the recognition of the uniqueness of the Quebec nation. For its part, the Conservative Party presented its contract with Quebec proposing a partnership federalism.

Across Canada, several issues in national election campaigns have traditionally led to tensions both between and within parties due to differences in regional perceptions, forcing candidates to do their best to reconcile visions that are often not easily compatible. Among these issues is gun control, traditionally considered to be a wedge issue, for which clear divisions have always existed between rural and urban areas of the country. Another example is the exploitation of the oilsands and the construction of pipelines, with many Canadians expressing resistance to the development of this energy sector.

NDP deputy leader’s campaign in Quebec

To better understand how local teams deal with tensions between national and local messaging, I conducted two interviews with NDP Deputy Leader Alexandre Boulerice, who won the party’s only seat in Quebec in the September election, as well as one interview with Lisa Cerasuolo, Boulerice’s communications officer.

First, to focus on local issues that would be attractive to the electorate of his RosemontLa Petite-Patrie riding in east-central Montreal, Boulerice’s team consulted with citizens of the riding before the election. It asked voters to respond by email to questions presented in its newsletter, inserted reply coupons in the MP’s bulletin, which is distributed a few times a year to all households in the riding, and used social media – Facebook in particular – to solicit voters’ opinions on various subjects.

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As a result, it became clear that the environment was a priority for voters in the riding, along with access to housing and a better distribution of wealth. On the environment, the idea of protecting the St. Lawrence River by giving it legal status as a living person or entity, discussed the previous year at a party convention, was tested with the electorate ahead of the campaign. During the spring, the candidate and his team visited various parks in the riding to present the idea and get people to sign a petition in favour of such a commitment. In the months preceding the campaign, a group of ornithologists also contacted the MP to inform him of the threat to a wetland belonging to the Montreal airport, where a developer was considering building a plant dedicated to producing N95 masks. The team decided to make the protection of this natural resource another electoral commitment.

As in previous election campaigns, the party hired a Quebec-based advertising agency to craft the campaign communication tools, based on focus groups, to determine the most effective messages in the province. These professionals proposed a slogan for the party in Quebec, “Oser ensemble” (“Dare together”), that was slightly different than the national one (“Ready for better”), in the belief that it would directly encourage the Quebec electorate to vote NDP.

Throughout the campaign, Boulerice’s team adapted the content provided by the national campaign to better reflect the candidate’s style and priorities. Hence, the team sometimes deviated from the daily scripted message when it was less meaningful to local voters and insisted, on these occasions, on emphasizing environmental issues. The social media content prepared by the national campaign was also largely modified – if not set aside outright – because it adapted poorly to the local electorate’s concerns. Moreover, the tone chosen by the Boulerice team was often more direct and familiar, even more aggressive or punchy, than the press lines suggested by the national campaign. The candidate’s team also on some occasions engaged in negative campaigning based on opposition research.

Alexandre Boulerice, (left) and Charles Taylor, McGill professor emeritus, teamed up in early September for some door-knocking in Montreal. Source: Instagram

Despite this overall room to manoeuvre, some issues put Boulerice in a difficult position, leading him to maintain a certain degree of vagueness and to use a few linguistic contortions. This was the case with the future of the Trans Mountain pipeline, a project that the federal NDP did not reject completely due to electoral considerations. The Quebec law emphasizing the laicity of the state (Bill 21) was also a contentious issue. The law bans public workers in positions of authority, such as judges or school teachers, from wearing religious symbols when they are on duty. While this has been largely accepted in Quebec, it was opposed by the NDP based on freedom of choice. Moreover, public health care and the adoption of national care standards was approached with caution in the province. The Quebec wing of the party chose its words carefully when referring to the NDP’s commitments in this domain, which many voters felt encroached on provincial responsibilities.

In sum, Boulerice’s campaign during the September election shows that he benefited from significant leeway in deciding his discourse on issues deemed to be priorities at the local and regional level. He also had the room to adapt the press lines and other communication tools provided by the party to local realities. However, this latitude did not prevent certain national positions from generating delicate, even tense, situations at the local level to ensure overall coherence.

Overall, this case shows that despite the awkward position in which candidates sometimes find themselves given national messaging, dissent is rare. Candidates generally seem to agree to bow to the party’s imperatives, hiding behind vague, hollow or ambiguous discourse to mask their conflicting positions. As stressed by Boulerice, this is the fair price to pay for being part of a political party rather than running as an independent candidate.

The author would like to thank Alexandre Boulerice, member of Parliament for Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, and Lisa Cerasuolo, Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie office communications officer, for their invaluable input.

This article is abridged from a book that UBC Press plans to publish in 2022. It is part of the Inside the Constituency-Level Election Campaign special feature series.

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Stéphanie Yates
Stéphanie Yates is a professor of communication at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She works on lobbying, public participation and social acceptability, and is the editor of Introduction aux relations publiques: fondements, enjeux et pratiques (2018, Presses de l’Université du Québec). Her LinkedIn is here.

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