An election candidate with a Canadian political party is not a free agent. Similar to the local franchisees of an established corporate brand, party candidates benefit from their party affiliation, but that affiliation comes with terms and conditions. Candidates enter politics with visions of being grassroots representatives or purveyors of independent thinking. They quickly learn that they are part of a sales force of brand ambassadors whose every word is monitored.

Over the past year, I have interviewed more than 100 current and former Canadian politicians and political staff about party discipline. Some of the research around brand ambassadors has been published in the Journal of Political Marketing, in an article co-authored with Angelia Wagner of the University of Alberta, who separately interviewed Canadian election candidates and prospective candidates. What participants had to say offers insights into the franchisor-franchisee relationship between political parties and their candidates.

By now, the many adventurous Canadians nominated to run as party candidates in the upcoming federal election have been warned by the party brass about what they can and cannot say publicly. In an integrated media environment, everything about a candidate — ranging from an old social media comment to live-streamed remarks at a local debate — can plunge the national campaign into damage control. Opponents hoard controversial information about a candidate and typically release it when the leader’s tour comes to town. To avoid being a distraction, candidates are reduced to smiling bobbleheads and potted plants who say nothing while dutifully standing behind the leader during a photo op. Once elected, they become voting machines who mostly vote the party line.

Why political parties put candidates on a tight leash

Party operatives have good reason for clamping down on independence during an election campaign. More often than not, voters prioritize a political party and its leader. Candidates and incumbent MPs are constantly told that they account for approximately 10 percent of the vote. In fact, research suggests that number may be as low as 5 percent, a figure that is lower still in urban areas and among voters who pay little attention. Candidate-related factors therefore matter to the outcome only in close races. Consequently, their efforts are often inconsequential to the overall results. Yet someone who is the source of a so-called bozo eruption can have profound negative implications for the national campaign.

National factors are so important that a party cannot afford to be derailed by an independent-minded candidate who challenges the party line or, worse, brings the party into disrepute. Political operatives worry about candidates who freelance because of the controversy that ensues when the media spot daylight between a candidate and the leader. All of the work that the party invests into projecting a cohesive brand image or making a policy announcement can be undone by a single errant remark. It will harm all of the other candidates and the party overall.

How candidates become brand ambassadors

Political parties transform their candidates into brand ambassadors through a multistep process:

  1. Screening/vetting: Canadians interested in running for the party nomination must complete lengthy, invasive questionnaires that dissect their lives. They must declare support for the party’s values as expressed in the party constitution. Those deemed to be off-brand and who might be a source of controversy are rejected.
  2. Nomination campaign: The party nomination process is shrouded in mystery. Prospective nominees usually have to sign documents to assure the party of good behaviour and pledge not to discuss internal processes. In the past, some have had to submit a good conduct bond, though it isn’t clear how common that practice is for the 2019 federal campaign.
  3. Candidate training schools: At campaign preparation seminars, nominated candidates are told repeatedly by party officials to exercise extreme caution about public commentary.
  4. Messaging: Candidates are urged to relentlessly repeat approved talking points. A daily flurry of emails with centralized messaging begins the moment a candidate’s nomination is confirmed by the party. In advance of the party platform being released, a candidate might receive a document outlining message parameters on key policy files. The leader’s social media posts and public remarks are a further cue for sticking to a party message track.
  5. Negative reinforcement: Candidates in all parties learn to be cautious whenever they observe a media firestorm over someone who is off-brand, especially when the controversy results in a candidate resigning. A brand ambassador who goes off-message will likely bear the brunt of a tongue lashing from a stressed-out party staffer and be told to stay away from the media.

Protecting the party’s brand and the leader’s image is paramount to the entire campaign operation. The marginalization of what brand ambassadors say is now standard operating procedure. By comparison, candidates running for fringe parties and as independents face less restraint because their comments are not connected to the brand architecture of a major political party.

One of the biggest sources of risk to a party’s efforts to run a perfect campaign is the pressure it faces to run a full slate of 338 candidates (78 in the case of the Bloc Québécois, which fields candidates only in Quebec). Recruiting candidates in unwinnable districts can become an act of desperation. If shortcuts are taken, those candidates are especially prone to becoming a media distraction. This is presumably a factor contributing to why the New Democratic Party is unapologetic about taking longer to nominate candidates.

What a party candidate can safely say

A party candidate can safely offer certain promises within message boundaries, such as:

  • I promise to work tirelessly on your behalf.
  • I’ll fight hard for X.
  • I pledge to be accessible and to listen.

These types of nondescript commitments convey an image of a local candidate who will be an energetic representative. Political parties like this because it is safe within the constraints of the brand. Only those who look closely will notice that most candidates are brand ambassadors with little to no decision-making power. If elected, most will become information conduits between Ottawa and their constituencies. That role could differ from what they imagined when they agreed to stand for election.

Challenges for democracy

A strong, vibrant democracy should have a diversity of candidates expressing a variety of points of view. Electors should get a sense of what kind of representation they can expect of their MP in the House of Commons. Political parties’ vetting processes screen out people who have suspect backgrounds, but this has the effect of silencing independent thought. Sticking to a script helps electors understand what they are voting for, but scripting suppresses individualism. Once candidates get elected, they end up lamenting the pervasive use of talking points and get frustrated with leaders who impose punishments when MPs rebuff the party line.

The nature of local representation is changing, as political parties obsess over brand management and as everyone affiliated with the party is viewed as a spokesperson. The danger of candidates being viewed as party mouthpieces delivering elite-approved messages is that it creates an appetite for plain-speaking populists who benefit from controversy. As well, the public gets frustrated with democracy itself.

Candidates matter. They are on the front lines of elections. But political parties’ need for central communications oversight is only going to intensify. We need more conversations about what a Canadian party’s brand ambassadors can do to demonstrate that they are meaningfully contributing to strong democratic representation.

Photo: Green Party of Canada candidates and supporters march along Church St. in Toronto as they head towards a discussion on climate with Green Party leader Elizabeth May in Toronto, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

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Alex Marland holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Trust and Political Leadership at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. Prior to joining Acadia, he was a professor of political science at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador. He also sits on the board of the IRPP.

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