All posts by Will Stewart

Ensight Post-Election Research Update: A Look Back, One Year In

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Editor’s Note: This week, Ensight is publishing a series of original content articles looking back on the Liberal government’s first year in power and ahead to the rest of its mandate.

Previously, Ensight Senior Counsel and lifetime member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery Don Newman looked back upon the path Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has blazed for his party and surveys the road ahead. Click here to read that article.


By Will Stewart

One year ago as Canadians were busy making their way to the polls, Ensight’s research team was preparing to head out on the road to conduct Canada’s Only Genuine Exit Poll.

After tracking the evolution of issues over the course of the election campaign, Ensight’s research team conducted qualitative research through 10 focus group sessions in Vancouver, Calgary, Quebec City, Halifax, and Toronto. Those sessions were augmented by online focus groups of young Canadians aged 18 to 29 years.

Once the votes had been counted, we sought out the reasons behind why Canadians voted for change in the form of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party, what they expected from their new government, and how those choices and expectations would drive the future of governance and political life in Canada.

We found plenty of answers. Here is how they look one year later.

1)     We said that it would be “Back to the Future” which is exactly what we have seen.  Almost every announcement, internationally and domestically, has focused on how Canada is back to being an international leader, a collaborator, a peacekeeper.  The government seems more guided by “We are not Harper” than anything else.  The “Canadian Way” of consultation and leading from the middle is evident in every department.

2)     Not a defeat of the Conservative Party, but a defeat of Harper.  We have now seen that we were correct in that finding as well.  Most of Harper’s top names are gone and forgotten, most recently with the resignation of Jason Kenney to return home to Alberta.  While the Liberals are riding high in the polls, the Conservatives are still strong, despite not having a permanent leader which shows that the party’s support is still there. Contrast that with the NDP, who in the eyes of the public are boarding on irrelevant.

3)     A New Collaborative Tone on the world stage.  We have seen this prediction come true in Paris on climate talks all the way to the UN meetings and the commentary from Trudeau of wanting a seat on the Security Council.  Arms deals to the Middle East conflict zones do dog the government, but the defence strategy of peacekeeping “somewhere” is evidence that they continue to assert their brand of Canada in their own way.

4)     Election of the government on values and vision, not polices.  This has become very true.  We predicted that voters would not rebel against the government for changing their policies as long as they were true to this new vision of Canada.  The Liberals have moved away from their platform promises – from the size of the deficits (promised $10B a year, brought in $30B a year), environmental targets (from Harper’s being “dangerous” to adopting Harper’s target) but yet the government is still enjoying unprecedented support in public opinion polls.

5)     Canadians preferred a “go-slow” approach which is exactly what we have seen. Now one year into his mandate, Trudeau has yet to deliver on many of his promises, opting instead to launch consultation processes for most of them. As the results of those consultations start to come it, Trudeau will face new challenges on plotting and taking a course which will not always be popular with those who invested in the discussions when they do not see their work and recommendations reflected.

6)     More open government. This one is harder to declare victory on. On one hand, the government has taken more lobbyist meetings, given more time for consultations, and is projecting an open government mindset. However, the Trudeau Liberals have also begun to resort to time allocation or closure motions to limit debate in the House of Commons, have seen the Statistics Canada chief resign over political interference, have publicly declared no referendum for electoral system changes, and have an even more centralized staffing model than even Harper ever achieved.

7)     Canadians willing to accept modest deficits if there is a plan to get out of them. We don’t have enough data on this yet. When Trudeau announced his bigger than promised deficit, many were still in their honeymoon period with him; and many still are today. The fall economic update may shed some light on the financial situation which will not likely impact public opinion polls until closer to Christmas.

8)     Environmental issues are important. We found that voters felt that climate change was ignored by Harper and they wanted the new government to do something about it. Now the government has officially adopted the Harper policies on GHG reduction.  While it has not hurt them in the polls yet, we believe that environmental policies will be an issue for Trudeau, but he has more positive brand attributes on this file than Harper so he may be able to place it on the backburner without an impact on votes.

9)     Pipelines, indigenous peoples, TPP – On all these issues we predicted that Trudeau would have to do something.  And we still believe it.  But not much of substance has taken place yet.  The question that is not answered is will voters begin to voice their concerns on these issues or does Trudeau get a pass.

Will Stewart is an Ensight Principal. He has had extensive campaign experience in leadership roles and frequently appears on TV, radio, and invited to speak about campaign strategy and the role of social media in modern campaigns.


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By: Will Stewart

Sometimes events take place deep inside the Ottawa political culture that are telling indications of where a political party is heading.  While these events often play out in press events, the House of Commons, and other public venues, they are often missed by the general population but give keen observers insight into the future.

Today, Aaron Wherry from the CBC writes a very good piece on the use of time allocation motions in the House of Commons.  Wherry is no stranger to this topic having written articulately on the issue previously in Macleans.

Time allocation, also known as Standing Order 78, or closure motions, are typically introduced by the governments of all stripes to limit debate on a government bill. Also typically, these motions are introduced by the government to cries of foul behaviour and the death of democracy by opposition parties of all stripes.  While they have never been introduced by the NDP, and are consistently bemoaned by the NDP, we don’t have any data points on how they would behave if they were the government for obvious reasons.

Outside of Ottawa, perhaps even outside of Wherry and myself, there are few people paying attention to the Liberals’ new found re-discovery of time allocation motions.  The Liberals made much use of Standing Order 78 when last in power, and the Conservatives were legendary addicts to closure motions.

The reader may rightfully ask “So what?” at this point.  Both the Liberals and the Conservatives do it in government, and every party complains about it when it is done to them in opposition.  This is clearly not news.

But it is.  As I alluded to at the outset, this could be an indicator of issues to come for keen observers.

Immediately after the recent federal election, our research professionals fanned out across the country to conduct research on why people voted the way they did and what they expect from the government.  Our research report can be found here.

One of our key findings was that voters expected this government to behave differently than what they perceived to be the insular previous government.  They had little knowledge of specific policies proposed by Trudeau and, frankly, did not care to know.  What voters we spoke with were focused on was the way in which Trudeau would govern.  They were, and are, looking for a different approach.

Trudeau campaigned on running a more accessible, open and transparent government, and this pledge struck a chord with voters.  Canadians told us they crave a government that is more civil and less exclusive, and they will be watching Trudeau closely on this issue.

Unlike Harper, who believed he would be judged on how many of his promises he could accomplish, Trudeau will be judged on his behaviour in implementing change.

Liberals constantly, and consistently, stood in their place in the House of Commons and complained about time allocation motions.  Their protestations worked.  Canadians now see various mundane procedural motions such as closure, prorogation, and in camera meetings as negatives in politics due in large part to the Liberals themselves in opposition.  Ironically, as they use these same legitimate tactics themselves, it is their own success in driving their message then that will cause them problems now.

To date, the Liberal talking points have been “they did it too” or “we do it less”.  From a political point of view these messages are a dangerous tactic. Like a refrain from The Who song “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, it only serves to hurt the very core of the brand that brought Justin Trudeau to 24 Sussex – that he is different than the guy they just booted out.

At the end of the day, will a time allocation motion cause the government to be defeated at the polls? No. Time allocation motions are a legitimate part of our system, just as prorogation and closed door committee meetings.  I support the need for them and the use of them regardless of the party in power. What we are seeing, however, is a party that is transitioning from the true believers in the third party adjusting to the realities of governing.  How they make that adjustment now will set the stage for how they are judged later.

And the name of that song from The Who?

“Won’t Get Fooled Again”


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By: Will Stewart

It has often been said that politics is a mixture of expectations and timing. If true, a price on carbon is a policy discussion whose time has come and with it big expectations.

Trudeau has found himself elected on the eve of significant climate talks in Paris. This early test of his foreign affairs heft comes with massive expectations for the new government. Timing and expectations are converging rapidly Canada’s soon to be government.

British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and most likely Alberta in the near future, have moved ahead in the absence of federal leadership on GHG emissions. With the provincial Premiers set to accompany the new Prime Minister to the Paris talks, Trudeau will have to balance his own leadership on the national and international stage, while at the same time respecting provincial experience and action on the issue of carbon. All while critics look to discredit the new Prime Minister early in his mandate. 

So how does Trudeau manage expectations while in this immediate term? Our proprietary qualitative research would suggest he already has by inviting Premiers and Elizabeth May to accompany him.

Canadian voters told us that they expect Trudeau to consult with experts, to have an open dialogue with other leaders, not take a dogmatic approach to governing, and to listen to the scientists who they see as having been muzzled in the previous parliament. Voters view Trudeau’s tone and approach to serious problems as more important than adherence to past position. They expect a slow, deliberate, consultative approach from the new government.

As long as Trudeau takes this approach into Paris, he will be able to manage the political expectations, while ensuring time is on his side.

(Also view Will Stewart’s column ‘Quick Fix: Trudeau and the COP21 Paris climate change conference‘ in The Lobby Monitor.)

Will Stewart is Managing Principal of Navigator and ENsight Canada. He has had extensive campaign experience in leadership roles and frequently appears on TV, radio, and invited to speak about campaign strategy and the role of social media in modern campaigns.


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By: Will Stewart

Casual political observers are focused almost exclusively on the air war in our current general election.  Media reports of the leaders’ events, how key spokespeople respond to the daily verbal exchange, public affairs news, and world developments beyond our borders fill inboxes, twitter feeds, newspaper boxes, and television screens. Breathless partisans hit the nightly shows to prognosticate, predict, and attempt to persuade the mythical undecided voter in regular cycles.  Both positive and “compare and contrast” (read negative) ads pop up with more and more frequency during our nighttime viewing rituals.  And leaders themselves attend highly scripted events, staged to look like the average Canadian should get on board their victory train.

Despite the amount of oxygen this air war consumes, mass communications are only a small percentage of the campaign tactics used by sophisticated political parties.

Far more important, and effective, micro-targeting campaigns are happening across this country, by all parties, but most people don’t see or hear it unless you are among the targets.  Leaders, and their campaigns, figured out long ago that their messages are far more effective if they can get directly to their targets without the filter of the (often cynical and jaded) main stream media in Ottawa that cover the lion’s share of political activity in our nation’s capital.

We saw a few examples of this micro-targeting in the past few days.  Most notably, we saw the Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau unveil his policy platform at a university and take live questions on Facebook, both on the heels of an interview on the news site VICE.  All clearly designed to appeal to what the Liberals call “youth progressive voters” who frequent those channels.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, took to Metro News for an exclusive interview with Stephen Harper.  Metro News is a free, primarily commuter read newspaper that typically repurposes other longer stories from dailies into short, digestible quick reads for the coveted outer 416/inner 905 audience that the Conservatives need.  Previously, in a similar micro-targeted move, Stephen Harper sat down for an exclusive interview with the Costco newsletter.  The Ottawa media openly mocked the choice, and in some cases spilled their own ink, questioning how Costo can get a coveted exclusive interview with a Prime Minister they dub as inaccessible to them.  Costco offered something the Ottawa gallery could not – direct, largely unfiltered access to the coveted suburban voter.

These highly targeted choices are the hallmark of a modern campaign.  Much time is spent discussing voter archetypes and what motivates those voters to act.  From there, campaign tactics are flushed out based on what those archetypes do, where they gather and how they interact with media and technology.  Where they shop, what they watch, and how they communicate are all discussed in a granular way by strategists to pinpoint how best to ensure those voters hear from the party.

As an example we can look at the urban-rural split. Parties treat these voters in a fundamentally different fashion.  The way urban and rural voters consume information, speak with their friends and family, how they gather or commute are fundamentally different between cities and small towns.  Therefore the parties communicate with them differently, and with different messages.

Many, including the main-stream media who are tasked with covering and being part of the air-war, complain that these tactics divide the electorate.  But in reality these tactics have been in play for as long as there have been elections.  Promises made to different areas of the country, special interest groups, and geographical differences in priorities have always played a role. The difference now is simply that there are more highly targeted channels than there once was and consumers of the messages can curate their own information, and make geography irrelevant, through the use of technology.

These “other campaigns” can result in stark regional differences for seat counts, as targeted messages can motivate big swaths of similar look-a-like ridings. At the end of the day, however, tailoring messages to specific groups should have the effect of motivating people to get out and vote which is certainly not a negative.  Each party has the same opportunity to target the same voters and those that do it the best will win, despite what the air war tells the casual voter.


Will Stewart is Managing Principal of Navigator and ENsight Canada. He has had extensive campaign experience in leadership roles and frequently appears on TV, radio, and invited to speak about campaign strategy and the role of social media in modern campaigns.

The Digital Campaign Trail: Four Things to Watch

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By Will Stewart

With the tools available to campaigns in 2015, this should be the year Canadians catch up to the American digital pioneers of precision-politics—building unprecedented campaigns to understand, reach, and connect with voters directly. While we only ever see the tip of the iceberg (such is the nature of precision-targeting) watch out for these indicators to see if the campaigns have stepped up their game.

1. Who acts on micro-moments?  

With the shift to mobile, Canadians practically live online in 2015. As soon as we have an impulse—what Google calls I-want-to-know, I-want-to-go, I want-to-do, and I want-to-buy moments—we use our mobile device to act on that impulse. Which party is ready to greet voters who want to know more about a specific policy, or want to attend a campaign event or volunteer to knock on doors at the moment that impulse hits them? If all we’re seeing are status updates, tweets, and emails blasts, we know we have a digital campaign fit for 2008.

2. Who uses digital to identify voters?

This one may be a bit tougher to “watch,” since an effective campaign will use the pin-point accuracy of online targeting to feed specific messages to voters and work them through a funnel to identify whether they’re supportive or not. While old-school voter ID may have been a slow and painful process involving duplicate entries in an archaic database—often with unreliable results—today’s campaigns can ID voters at a fraction of the price, and in much larger batches, than ever before. Keep an eye out for the type of Facebook ads you’re exposed to, and where those ads take you. If you end up on a page that doesn’t ask you to take action, solicits your views, or asks for more of your personal info, you’ve just experienced a traditional ad that happens to be on a digital platform.

3. Who localizes their content?

All politics is local. With precision advertising, campaigns can serve localized content. Geo-fencing content lets them save money, while maxing out impressions, without wasting a single impression on a voter outside that jurisdiction. If you notice a video or post in your feed with a message that’s specific to your riding, you’ll know what you’re experiencing: localized content designed to connect the local campaign to the central campaign.

4. Who gets out the online vote?

Of course, these efforts are useless if you don’t mobilize voters to show up at the ballot box on Election Day. Political campaigns are activation campaigns. Keep an eye out for custom apps that help voters find their ballot box and motivate them to show up on E-Day. Or, for the ambitious campaigns, you may see an entry into push-notification platforms fit for the mobile world. How will the campaigns activate their supporters from the palm of their hands on E-Day?

Will Stewart is Managing Principal of Navigator and ENsight Canada. He has had extensive campaign experience in leadership roles and frequently appears on TV, radio, and invited to speak about campaign strategy and the role of social media in modern campaigns.


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By Will Stewart, Principal at ENsight Canada

No discussion of an election past, present, or future is ever complete without pundits and prognosticators debating the issue of leaders’ debates.  What will the format be, who will moderate, what should we do, say, and how do we act? In this federal election, those questions have been amplified multiple times over by the seemingly slow death of the all-powerful broadcast consortium debate in favour of more, and different, debates than we have ever seen before.

Many ENsight professionals view leaders’ debates from a radically different perspective. We have been trusted advisors in the inner circle with various leaders as they spend hours, weeks, and even months practicing, rehearsing, and role playing their approach to that all important hour to hour and a half block.  What we have learned from this experience may surprise many.

First, leaders are far more insecure than they let on while on TV.  Being one of the privileged few to be part of debate prep requires that the leader not only likes you, but believes that you have insights to share and help them improve.  In public, the leader shall not be questioned, but in this private setting an advisor is not doing their job if they are not questioning and criticizing.   It is perhaps only in this safe space that the leader shows their true convictions and insecurities. It is the advisor’s job in this setting to critique, support, and embolden the leader for show time.

Second, in debate prep the goal is to help the leader avoid being struck by the knockout punch that media and the public so desperately want to see.  The prep, and execution these days is far more defense than offence.  Gone are the days of Mulroney’s famous “you had a choice” line that many Canadian pundits recall with glee.  Rather, today’s debate prep is focused on delivering your messages, some slight attacks on the others (but not so much to be mean; that’s not Canadian, eh?), and come out of the debate claiming victory with a chance to fight on.  I think it is telling, and perhaps painfully Canadian, that the last federal leaders’ debate is remembered for Jack Layton commenting on Michael Ignatieff’s attendance record like a high school guidance counselor.  If that was a knock out blow, then my counselor was Mike Tyson.

Third, in today’s highly critical, social media driven world it is increasingly important to practice and simulate the physicality of a full debate.  These debates take place in the evening, during a writ, and require leaders to look, act, and deliver like a leader, yet many campaigns still take the old approach of question, answer, debate exchange and then stop to discuss.  In my opinion this ignores the critical need to have a leader actually stand in their place, under the lights and cameras, and deliver without scowl or slouch for over an hour. In my last leader’s preparation we took a different approach.  We ran full simulations, not piece-meal rehearsals, at the same time of day, with studio lights, a moderator, and volunteers role playing the other leaders.   Complete with video questions, following the debate format laid out by the organizers, we forced our leader to deliver the words, show the emotion, and physically make it through the meat grinder. A leader cannot look tired and win the event.

Finally, one thing to watch for in the debate tonight will be a new idea, a clever twist, a proposal designed by a campaign team to unsettle the others. Something that is new for a leader that the other teams could not have prepared for.  In 2006, Paul Martin tried to surprise the others with his call to abolish the notwithstanding clause from the constitution.  In 2014, Tim Hudak promised to resign if he did not fulfill his campaign promises.  In both cases the leaders never got the chance to deliver on those mid-debate ideas, but in both cases they pushed their fellow participants in the debate into an uncomfortable space.  We expect to see that approach taken tonight in this tight three-way race.

For many, the debate tonight will be the only time they see the leaders unfiltered.  The best leader will be the one that takes all the hours of preparation, scripting, and discussion about tone, posture, and inflection and makes it all look as natural as a conversation with a neighbour.