It's no secret that a highly targeted, well-financed campaign was one of the Conservative Party's strategies in the 2011 election that produced their long-sought majority government.
CBC News has learned that strategy was more extensive, ambitious and ultimately successful than previously thought, targeting more than 30 ridings and delivering successes in key battleground ridings, particularly in Ontario.
After two straight minority governments, Conservatives welcomed what they like to call a "strong, stable" majority, winning a 14-seat margin over the opposition parties on May 2, 2011. That success was thanks in large part to their ability to target swing seats in ridings with large ethnic populations by "narrow-casting."
That technique, in which a party's messaging and advertising is tailored to specific groups, helped the Conservatives take in 626,201 more votes than in the previous election, increasing their previous seat total by 23 in the 41st Parliament of Canada.
With two Conservative seats up for grabs in November byelections and another hanging in the balance with this week's Supreme Court decision on Etobicoke Centre, the importance of the Conservatives' margin of victory is undeniable.
An internal document that surfaced weeks before the Conservative government fell in March 2011 gave a preview of the party’s election strategy.
The strategy document set out 10 "very ethnic" ridings to be targeted. The plan was effective: nudging the vote among cultural communities helped the party take seven of the 10 ridings. The document — a presentation created by Kasra Nejatian, a staffer in Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office — said the ridings were chosen because each featured an ethnic group that made up 20 per cent or more of its population.
CBC News has learned the Conservatives ultimately targeted more than 30 ridings based on their proportion of ethnic minorities — and won two-thirds of them. The party did better in some regions than others: in Ontario, they took every riding they targeted, according to information obtained by CBC News. They had less luck in British Columbia and Quebec, where the NDP dominated.
The presentation, which came to be known by the "very ethnic" heading above one of the slides, was attached to a letter seeking donations from Alberta's Conservative riding associations to help fund the plan. The package inadvertently made its way to New Democrat MP Linda Duncan, the only opposition MP in Alberta, and the NDP eagerly shared it with reporters.
Micro-targeting not unique to Conservatives
The Conservative Party's success in targeting and winning ridings is based on three other strengths: the party's ability to fundraise, giving them as much money as spending limits allow; their success with cultural communities; and the intensity of their campaign tactics. The campaign machine is systematic, efficient and often vicious. And if it sets its full sights on an opposition-held riding, it's likely to win.
A source who worked in the Conservative war room in 2011 says micro-targeting itself isn't revolutionary.
"The idea that you target people based on their preferences, based on their habits, is not new. Every political party has been doing it for decades," the Conservative operative said.
"We're just better at it."
The extra cash — the party raised $22 million in 2011, compared with $10.1 million for the Liberals and $7.4 million for the NDP — means it can do extensive polling in the lead-up to the election, when parties can spend as much as they want. In the Conservatives' case, that meant breaking down ridings into specific ethnic groups and running the numbers to see what kind of vote swing they would need to take the seat.
In many cases, their strategy was highly effective. CBC News has examined the election files of a number of Conservative candidates, including those on the list of the 10 targeted ridings. The records in the Elections Canada files indicate strong control from party headquarters, large amounts of money spent on communications and polling, and tight, take-no-prisoners messaging.
That said, the analysis also shows it's not just about money. Of those 10 target ridings, the candidate who took the riding out-spent the other candidates in six of the races, but sometimes just barely.
'Need to have a message that resonates'
Brad Lavigne, the NDP's national campaign director in 2011, says the New Democrats have studied how the Conservatives target potential voters.
"The Conservative Party has been effective at narrow-casting their universe, the potential vote, and using the tools of government and the party apparatus to not only persuade but to get out the vote of those groups," Lavigne said.
The tools used for targeting are getting more precise, he added, but they're only as good as the people using them.
"In order for these tools to be effective, you need to have a message that resonates and you have to understand the targeted groups and whether or not they're going to respond well to your message," Lavigne said.
Liberal Party president Mike Crawley agrees it isn't just about spending the money to research voter preferences and intentions.
"I think you shouldn't be polling to figure out what you’re going to stand for, right? You've got to have to figure out what you're going to stand for, then poll just to find out how to best communicate that and how to best position it," he said.
Big names deliver extra cash
Deciding whether a riding is worth the focus falls to a combination of polling data, on-the-ground factors such as how the local economy is doing, and whether the incumbent and challengers are weak or strong candidates. Carefully breaking down and analyzing the numbers provides that much more certainty.
Much of the strategy for the ethnic community push came from the one cabinet minister and staff who have spent years building up the party's appeal in cultural communities. Jason Kenney was first appointed secretary of state for multiculturalism in January 2007. He transitioned to minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism on Oct. 30, 2008, and has been in that role ever since.
The Calgary MP has devoted countless hours to developing the party's relations with cultural communities and listening to their needs. That much is well known, but a look back at the strategy described in those records shows how much he and his close circle of aides worked that angle.
Kenney declined to be interviewed for this article.
The presentation distributed by Nejatian laid out the numbers: by 2017, about half the 7.1 million people in the Greater Toronto Area would be visible minorities. A full 1.3 million would be South Asian and another 900,000 would be Chinese.
Other targeted groups included Ukrainians, who make up more than 20 per cent of the population in Manitoba's Elmwood-Transcona riding, and Jews, who form more than 35 per cent of Quebec's Mount Royal and, in Toronto, 25 per cent of both Eglinton-Lawrence and York Centre. For advertising purposes, those are large but focused groups, groups that you can reach easily through advertising in the language spoken at home.
The presentation asked for $200,000 from Alberta riding associations where Conservative support is strong, and promised $125,000 that Kenney had already fundraised. It also promised another $50,000 from the riding association to devote to the "very ethnic" push in the greater Toronto and Vancouver areas, singling out specifically South Asian and Chinese communities.
Elections Canada records show how the party's stronger and safer ridings transfer extra money to help contestants who need it:
- Kenney's riding association directed $130,000 to the Conservative Party on March 17, 2011, and another $99,177 to 17 Conservative riding associations.
- Harper's riding association transferred $200,000 to 21 other riding associations during the 2011 election.
- Many of the riding associations that got the cash transfers from Calgary Southeast and Calgary Southwest were on the list of 10 target ridings, long-standing Liberal ridings or ridings otherwise expected to be up for grabs.
In comparison, the riding associations of former NDP leader Jack Layton and former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff only transferred money to Layton and Ignatieff respectively, not to the campaigns of other candidates from their parties.
The numbers show the ability of the Conservative brand, brought to life through the party's leader and other high-profile MPs, to collect cash and deliver it to the most competitive ridings.
Before the next election, a federal party subsidy based on the number of votes received is being phased out, and parties will also have to contend with new riding boundaries. With all these challenges ahead, the question is whether the opposition parties can adapt to challenge of the well-oiled Conservative campaign machine.
Of course, the Liberals and New Democrats hope that's the case. The Liberals have bought a new system Crawley hopes will leapfrog them over the other parties in terms of their ability to gather information to help identify voters.
Lavigne says the New Democrats are already doing some elements of voter identification better than the Conservatives, although he admits there are other elements they do less well.
But, "without question, we're certainly playing on the same field as the Conservatives when it comes to voter targeting and narrow-casting," Lavigne says.
Also on HuffPost:
Highlights Of The 2011 National Household Survey
Here are some highlights from the 2011 National Household Survey. With files from <em>The Canadian Press</em>. (AFP/Getty Images)
As of May 2011, 33,476,688 people were enumerated in Canada, nearly twice as many as in 1961 and 10 times the number in 1861. (Alamy)
Population Growth Speeds Up
Canada's population grew by 5.9 per cent between 2006 and 2011, up slightly from 5.4 per cent during the previous five years. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jtbradford/" target="_hplink">Flickr: jtbradford</a>)
For the first time, more people in Canada live west of Ontario (30.7 per cent) than in Quebec and Atlantic Canada combined (30.6 per cent). (Flickr: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/derekgavey/" target="_hplink">derekGavey</a>)
We're Number One
Canada's population growth between 2006 and 2011 was the highest among G8 countries. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/33498942@N04/" target="_hplink">Flickr: WarmSleepy</a>)
Exceptions To The Rule
Every province and most territories saw their population increase between 2006 and 2011; the rate of growth increased everywhere except in Ontario, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. (AP)
The growth rate in Ontario declined to 5.7 per cent, its lowest level since the early 1980s. (Alamy)
Saskatchewan Out Of The Red
Population growth in Saskatchewan hit 6.7 per cent, compared with a negative growth rate of 1.1 per cent between 2001 and 2006; the province welcomed more than 28,000 immigrants during the latest census period, nearly three times the number of the previous five-year period. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/justaprairieboy/" target="_hplink">Flickr: Just a Prairie Boy</a>)
Yukon And Manitoba Take Off
The rate of growth in both Yukon (11.6 per cent) and Manitoba (5.2 per cent) has doubled since 2006. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/us_mission_canada/" target="_hplink">Flickr: US Mission Canada</a>)
The East Is Growing Too
The rate of growth in Prince Edward Island (3.2 per cent), New Brunswick (2.9 per cent) and Newfoundland and Labrador (1.8 per cent) has increased substantially between 2006 and 2011. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jw1697/" target="_hplink">Flickr JaimeW</a>)
Nearly seven of every 10 Canadians lived in one of Canada's 33 main urban centres in 2011. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/markwoodbury" target="_hplink">Flickr mark.woodbury</a>)
.. Except Not In Ontario..
The rate of population growth in almost all census metropolitan areas located in Ontario slowed between 2006 and 2011. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/husseinabdallah/" target="_hplink">Flickr abdallahh</a>)
Maybe Because Everyone Moved To Alberta
Of the 15 Canadian communities with the highest rates of growth, 10 were located in Alberta. (AFP/Getty Images)
As <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/25/electoral-boundary-commissions-canada_n_1451484.html" target="_hplink">electoral boundary commissions begin to carve up ridings</a> to make way for the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/12/14/house-of-commons-seats-senate_n_1149540.html" target="_hplink">30 new seats being added to the House of Commons</a>, we take a look at how many seats each province is getting and just how fair representation really is in Canada.<br><br> Except in extraordinary circumstances, the population of each electoral district must be within +/-25% of the provincial quota.<br><br> (Shutterstock / <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomatogeezer/" target="_hplink">Flickr: Tomato Geezer</a>)
Ontario will gain 15 new seats under the Tory bill, bringing the province's total to 121.<br><br> Ontario's population is now 12,851,821 people.<br><br> The size each riding should now be is 106,213 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 36 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 38 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)
Quebec will gain three new seats under the Tory bill, bringing the province's total to 78.<br><br> Quebec's population is now 7,903,001 people.<br><br> The size each riding should now be is 101,321 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 23 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 24 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)
B.C. will gain six new seats under the Tory bill, bringing the province's total to 42.<br><br> B.C.'s population is now 4,400,057 people.<br><br> The size each riding should now be is 104,763 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 12 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 13 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)
Alberta will gain six new seats under the Tory bill, bringing the province's total to 34.<br><br> Alberta's population is now 3,645,257 people.<br><br> The size each riding should now be is 107,213 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 10 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 11 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)
Manitoba will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 14 seats.<br><br> Manitoba's population is now 1,208,268 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 86,305 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 4 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 4 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)
Saskatchewan will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 14 seats.<br><br> Saskatchewan's population is now 1,033,381 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 73,813 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 4 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 3 per cent.<br><br> (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/justaprairieboy/" target="_hplink">Flickr: Just a Prairie Boy</a>)
Nova Scotia will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 11 seats.<br><br> Nova Scotia's population is now 921,727 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 73,813 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 3 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 3 per cent.<br><br> (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ojbyrne/" target="_hplink">Flickr: ojbyrne</a>)
New Brunswick will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 10 seats.<br><br> New Brunswick's population is now 751,171 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 75,117 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 3 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 2 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)
Newfoundland And Labrador
Newfoundland and Labrador will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 7 seats.<br><br> Newfoundland And Labrador's population is now 514,536 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 73,505 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 2 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 1.5 per cent.<br><br> (Alamy)
Prince Edward Island
P.E.I. will gain no new seats under the Tory bill. The province currently has 4 seats.<br><br> P.E.I.'s population is now 140,204 people.<br><br> The size each riding should be is 35,051 people.<br><br> Percentage of House: Approximately 1 per cent.<br><br> Percentage of Canada's population: Approximately 0.5 per cent.<br><br> (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/neilwillsey/" target="_hplink">Flickr: n_willsey</a>)