Political Campaign

Political campaigns are organized efforts to secure the nomination and election of people seeking public office. Technological developments – such as television, air transport, and the internet – have dramatically influenced campaign practices.

Election Campaign
Liberal leader John Turner campaigning while surrounded by reporters (photo by Hans Deryk/Canapress).

A political campaign is an organized effort to secure the nomination and election of people seeking public office. In a system of representative democracy, electoral campaigns are the primary means by which voters are informed of a political party's policy or a candidate's views. The conduct of campaigns in Canada has evolved gradually over nearly two centuries, adapting mostly British and American campaign practices to the needs of a parliamentary federation with two official languages, a severe climate and a relatively small population spread over half a continent. Campaigns occur at the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal levels. Federal and provincial campaigns are party contests in which candidates represent political parties. Municipal campaigns – and those of two territories (Northwest Territories and Nunavut) – are not fought by political parties, but by individuals seeking election to a non-partisan, consensus-based municipal council or territorial legislature. In all campaigns, technological developments – such as television, air transport, and the internet – have dramatically influenced campaign practices in recent times.

Early History

Representative political institutions were established in the British North American colonies of Lower Canada, Upper Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick before the end of the 18th century. As a result, political campaigns in Canada have a long history. Early campaigns preceded the creation of organized political parties and were therefore largely a series of individual efforts in local constituencies. Until responsible government was established in the middle of the 19th century, the governor of each colony, as the appointed representative of the British Crown, frequently intervened in electoral campaigns to ensure the election of members who would co-operate with him and make the necessary funds available to his administration.

Once responsible government was achieved, recognized government and opposition leaders sat in the legislature and attempted to co-ordinate the campaigns of their followers, in order to elect as many of them as possible. With Confederation in 1867, campaigns had to be extended over a vast geographical area. The general election campaigns of 1867, 1872 and 1874 were conducted in a highly decentralized manner and largely followed the rules and practices that the various provinces had inherited from pre-Confederation days.

The most striking difference between these early campaigns and their modern counterparts was that early campaigns did not culminate in a single polling day. Elections were spread over several weeks, with different constituencies voting on different days. This enabled the government to schedule the polling in its safest ridings at an early date to create a bandwagon effect that might persuade voters in more doubtful ridings to support the government candidates. Opposition strongholds would be left to the last so as not to discourage supporters of the government. Party leaders and other notable figures often were candidates in more than one constituency, so as to be sure of retaining a seat.

Within each constituency, voting might extend over two days. Voting was by a show of hands rather than by secret ballot, and bribery and intimidation were therefore a common and more or less accepted aspect of campaigns. The small size of the electorates facilitated a more personal approach to campaigning than is possible today. Skilful politicians such as Prime Minister John A. Macdonald knew most of their supporters by name. In the federal election of 1867 an average of less than 1,500 votes was cast in each constituency. (See also Voting in Early Canada.)

First Modern Campaign

The federal election campaign of 1878 was in some respects the first modern campaign. Virtually all candidates represented one of the two recognized parties, Liberal or Conservative. The parties were clearly differentiated on issues of policy that were extensively discussed during the campaign, and the Conservative victory could be regarded as a mandate to implement that party's policies of tariff protection and rapid completion of the transcontinental railway.

Virtually all constituencies voted on the same day and a secret ballot was used for the first time. This was also the first election in which candidates were required to appoint an official agent and to file a statement of their campaign expenditures. The most important procedures followed in future campaigns were largely established in 1878.


Modern electoral campaigns are carefully planned and co-ordinated efforts requiring lengthy preparation and centralized control. The leader of a party appoints a campaign committee with a campaign director reporting to the leader. Specific persons are responsible for various aspects of the campaign, including fund raising, advertising, travel arrangements, relations with the media and the measurement of public opinion.

In the Liberal Party it is customary to run a virtually separate campaign in Québec, with its own autonomous organization reporting directly to the national leader. This is largely because Québec tends to have its own political culture ­– often with different priorities and issues than the rest of Canada – all reflected through its own francophone news media. For the Conservative and New Democratic (NDP) parties, federal campaigns in Québec were merely a part of the overall national effort until the mid-1980s. This changed for the Conservatives following their capture of a large majority of seats in Québec in the 1984 federal election, and for the NDP soon thereafter.

Campaign planning is somewhat easier for the party that controls the government, because the prime minister normally determines the date of the election. The election date is selected to maximize the effectiveness of the governing party's campaign and will thus be influenced by prevailing economic conditions, by the government's popularity and the progress of its legislative program through Parliament. However, this important advantage is lost when an election is precipitated by the loss of a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. In such cases (for example, the federal elections of 1926, 1963 and 1980) the governing party loses this advantage. Since an election must be held at least every five years, a prime minister can also lose this advantage by letting Parliament run through its full course, as in 1896 and 1935.

Campaign strategies must take into account that Canadians display widely varying degrees of affiliation with particular parties. Each party seeks first to mobilize its own supporters – what is known as the party's "base" – then to secure the votes of those who might be leaning in its direction, and finally to persuade as many as possible of the uncommitted. Governing parties emphasize their accomplishments in office and announce initiatives designed to attract uncommitted voters. Opposition parties attack the government's record and make promises to do better if elected.

Campaign Issues

The issues in campaigns emerge out of the political debate between the government and Opposition. Occasionally issues also emerge unpredictably, suddenly altering the political agenda (such as an act of terrorism, a natural disaster, or an economic crisis). And not all campaigns are characterized by well-defined issues. Partly for this reason, and partly because Canadian parties are not sharply differentiated by ideology, campaigns emphasize the personal characteristics and presumed capabilities of the party leaders. Strategies are designed to acquaint voters with the leaders and to convince voters of their attractiveness; they frequently include attacks on the leaders of other parties.

William Lyon Mackenzie King, politician and prime minister
W.L.M. King during the election campaign of 1926 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-13886).

Federal election campaigns that appear to have been dominated by particular issues include those of 1878 (see National Policy); 1891 (commercial reciprocity with the United States); 1896 (Manitoba schools question); 1911 (reciprocity again); 1917 (conscription); 1926 (the constitutional powers of the governor generalsee King-Byng Affair); 1957 (the government's imposition of closure during the pipeline debate); 1963 (nuclear weapons), 1974 (wage and price controls); and 1988 (free trade with the United States).

Most of these issues were promoted and emphasized by the Opposition, more than by the government, and most of the campaigns listed ended with the defeat of the governing party. The 1988 campaign, in which the government sought and received a mandate to implement free trade, was an exception. In a majority of the campaigns in which the opposition parties failed to generate a dominating major issue, the governing party was re-elected. The governing party usually prefers to emphasize its competence and overall record rather than a specific issue.


Virtually all campaigns have emphasized the personality, charisma and traits of the leaders, a fact sometimes deplored by those who would prefer a more intellectual, policy-oriented and rational approach to politics. This is not a new phenomenon, as former slogans attest: "The Old Man, The Old Flag, and The Old Party" (used for Macdonald's last campaign in 1891), "Let Laurier Finish His Work" (1908), "King or Chaos" (1935) and "It's Time for a Diefenbaker Government" (1957). The leader referred to in the slogan won the election in each case.

In early campaigns the ability of the leaders and their image to influence the voters was largely indirect, and was dependent on the persuasive powers of local candidates and of newspapers that supported the leader. Today, thanks to modern transportation and communication – particularly televised campaign debates – party leaders, or at least their public images, are much better known to the voters.

In the early Canadian elections of the 19th century, John A. Macdonald and his Liberal opponents, Alexander Mackenzie and Edward Blake, campaigned only in southern Wilfrid Laurier, in 1917, was the first party leader to visit the western provinces during a campaign. William Lyon Mackenzie King failed to visit Québec, his party's major stronghold, during his successful campaign in 1921.

Today, leaders of national parties are expected to campaign in every province. Planning the leader's itinerary during the two months of the campaign is a major activity of the campaign committee. Party leaders who held office up to and including John Diefenbaker, relied mainly on the railways for their travel arrangements. Today's leaders use specially-chartered buses and aircraft, often with their party logos emblazoned on the outside. At each stop on the tour the leaders promise new policies – or new spending – of particular interest to the locality.


Electronic communications have made it possible for voters to hear and see party leaders without leaving their homes. Nationwide radio broadcasts by party leaders were first used in the federal campaign of 1930. Television was first employed in the campaign of 1957. In the late 20th century, all-news cable television brought daily campaign events live into voters' homes, and also shortened the news cycle (of a campaign announcement, a leader's gaffe or other development) from several days or weeks to a 24-hour period. In the 21st century, the internet, mobile phones and the rise of social media allow campaigns to reach voters almost anywhere. Instant communications have also shortened the news cycle to a matter of hours.

Political Debate
John Turner and Brian Mulroney during their acrimonious television debate (photo by Fred Chartrand).

Television and the internet have made it unnecessary to attract large numbers of voters to political meetings. Party leaders still address large rallies in the hockey arenas and auditoriums of the major cities, but today such events are attended mainly by reporters, television cameramen and people directly involved in the party's local campaign. Those in the latter category are often brought to the rally by chartered bus to ensure that empty seats will not be seen by voters viewing the event on television or YouTube. Perhaps no medium has done more than television to turn campaigns into contests of images over ideas. In modern campaigns, the leader that looks and sounds the most trustworthy and likeable on television, rather than the party with the best policy, often has the greatest advantage.

Advertising and Polling

Political advertising is now an essential feature of any campaign. Modern advertising techniques were first applied to political campaigns before the Second World War. Today, advertising agencies – often employed year-round by political parties, not only during actual campaigns – are highly influential in shaping campaign strategies and advising Canadian leaders. Slogans, leaflets, posters, lapel buttons and other paraphernalia, as well as newspaper advertisements, and the video made available to the electronic and digital media, seek to create the desired "image" of the party, its leaders and its policies. The majority of all advertising expenditure by parties is now devoted to television.

Even policy development, and the ideas put forward by leaders and parties during a campaign, are often determined not by policy experts or politicians themselves – or the traditional ideology of a party – but by advertising and marketing advisors hired to shape the party's "brand" and its "message." During a campaign, "message discipline" is imposed on the speeches and utterances of a party's candidates, often by strategists who operate in backroom party offices and who might never be known to voters. Critics of such methods say that as modern marketing and branding techniques have risen in importance during campaigns, so the authenticity of candidates and what they say has declined.

Justin Trudeau
Federal Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau visits Sussex, New Brunswick, in October, during the 2015 Canadian federal election campaign.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier Campaigning
Laurier ran successful campaigns for prime minister in 1896, 1900, 1904 and 1908.

Negative advertising, or attacks that directly criticize or raise doubts about an opposing party and its leader, are as old as democracy itself. There is widespread debate in Canada about the appropriateness of attack ads on television and elsewhere, as some believe these turn off voters from the whole political process and suppress voter turnout on election day. Others say negative ads are a legitimate tool in campaigns, and are used for the simple reason that they work – by harming the electoral chances of the targeted candidate. Occasionally negative ads backfire. One of the most spectacular examples of this in Canada was a television ad in the 1993 campaign by the Progressive Conservatives that indirectly highlighted the facial deformity of Liberal leader Jean Chrétien. The ad was roundly condemned, Chrétien was elected prime minister, and the Conservatives suffered their greatest defeat ever.

Modern campaigning is also deeply affected by the development of sampling and measuring public opinion. The periodic measurements of party standings by independent polling organizations are reported in the media and may affect the timing of elections and create a bandwagon effect during the campaign. The parties themselves employ their own pollsters and polling firms (whose findings are normally not published) to identify areas of strength and weakness, to discover the voters' attitudes towards leaders, candidates and issues, and to determine the particular image and brand of a campaign.

National War Rooms

Television and the internet, air transport, and modern techniques of measuring and manipulating public opinion have all increased the importance of centralized organization in a national or provincial campaign. The heart of a modern federal campaign is its national headquarters – often based in Toronto or Ottawa – where a team of strategists, advisors, advertisers, pollsters, logistics planners and media relations staff, led by a campaign manager or director and working in a campaign "war room," determine the daily message or announcement by the leader, react to statements by opposing candidates or special interest groups, and handle news media requests and messaging.

A second, smaller tier of advisers and planners, in close contact with national headquarters, travels with the party leader as he or she campaigns across the country. The national campaign office, in consultation with the leader's group, gives strategic direction to a party's provincial or regional campaign offices, and to local constituency campaigns.

Local Constituencies

At the same time, strong local campaigns at the constituency level are still necessary for electoral success. Local campaigns are primarily the responsibility of the candidate, their official agent and the local campaign manager. The main objectives are to introduce the candidate to as many voters as possible, to identify the voters who are likely to support the candidate and to ensure that those voters actually vote. The first objective is accomplished mainly by having the candidate visit voters in their homes, although in industrial and mining centres it is also customary to visit the factories and mines where many voters are employed. Community associations in middle-class neighbourhoods often sponsor debates among the local candidates, but it is widely believed that only voters who have already made up their minds attend them.

Green Party
Signs for the Green Party in advance of a Federal election. Photo taken on: April 23, 2011

Identifying the committed vote was easy in the stable rural communities and small towns of Macdonald's and Laurier's Canada. Today, among the diverse and highly mobile populations of modern cities, it can only be accomplished by an army of party canvassers who attempt to visit each household at least once during the campaign. On election day the same persons will check periodically to ensure that friendly voters have actually voted, and may provide transportation to the polling place as an inducement.

Local campaigns, now generally honest and fair, were not always so. In rural areas it was once common to bribe voters with food, alcoholic beverages and money. In the larger cities, particularly in Montréal before the Quiet Revolution, there were many instances of impersonating voters, placing fictitious names on the voters' lists, stealing ballots and intimidating the other party's volunteers by the threat or use of violence. Stricter regulation of campaigns and a more affluent and sophisticated electorate have brought about the virtual disappearance of such practices. However, the manipulation of the electorate through advertising, the extensive branding and image-making of party leaders and candidates at the expense of authenticity, and the frequency with which campaign promises are ignored after the election, continue to raise questions about the quality of the democratic process.

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Further Reading

  • John Meisel, The Canadian General Election of 1957 (1962); Richard Johnston, André Blais, Henry E. Brady and Jean Crete, Letting the People Decide: Dynamics of a Canadian Election (1992).

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