Opinion

Brian Topp Spins BC NDP's Election Loss

Leaked report shows former campaign manager shoulders some of the blame, but not nearly enough.

By Bill Tieleman 24 Sep 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning." -- Adlai E. Stevenson, two-time U.S. presidential candidate.

The biggest conclusion one can draw from the leaked report of B.C. New Democratic Party election campaign manager Brian Topp is that he never should have got the job.

Last week Topp's 42-page confidential document for the BC NDP was somehow obtained by not one but two major newspapers and an influential Ottawa political blog just after leader Adrian Dix announced his resignation last week.

Reading the report makes it clear that Topp is undertaking the biggest salvage job since the Costa Concordia cruise ship was removed from the rocks off Italy's coast.

Topp attempts to subtly yet inexorably paint Dix as sinking the campaign almost singlehandedly, but the reality is that Topp -- not Dix -- was actually running it.

And while Dix -- whom I supported for leader -- took responsibility by quitting, the Topp spin merely "deeply" regrets some mistakes in "hindsight."

Yet those errors were fatal, and many of Topp's recommendations are little more than Political Campaigning 101 fundamentals.

For example: "The next campaign must contrast the choices and remind voters of the government's record in clear, compelling and straightforward language from the first day of the campaign."

Or: "Our proposals were framed as spending commitments rather than as outcomes that meant something to the lives of families."

No kidding!

But wasn't Topp hired because he was a veteran campaign manager and strategist who knows all this stuff? Did he need to lose a "can't miss" election to rediscover the basics?

And if Topp disagreed with the premise of the campaign and the leader's approach that were well known months before, why did he take the assignment?

Questionable company

That Topp even was allowed to continue as campaign manager after announcing in February he had formed the public affairs company Kool Topp & Guy with Christy Clark's disgraced former chief of staff Ken Boessenkool and BC Liberal Party advisor Don Guy was the NDP's and Dix's biggest election mistake.

Boessenkool resigned after an "incident of concern" involving a female staffer in a Victoria bar; and Guy, a longtime Ontario Liberal strategist, spoke behind closed doors at the provincial Liberal convention in 2012 on how to defeat the NDP. He later joined Christy Clark's election team.

Boessenkool famously remarked that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's greatest achievement in office was to kill a national child care program, while Guy was embroiled in an Ontario public inquiry into the cancellation of two natural gas power plants at a cost of over $585 million to taxpayers. Interesting company for Topp to keep, let along partner with.

When Guy flew into B.C. to do communications and research for Clark's successful election campaign, it meant that two owners of the same firm were fighting on opposite sides of the ballot, while the third owner cheered on his former boss Clark -- knowing either way one of his partners would win.

But the NDP was apparently too nervous to find another manager without Topp's baggage before the election, even though it should have.

Lazy polling

It was Topp who astonishingly rejected the mainstay of modern political campaigns: polling key swing ridings daily during the election to determine trends. I broke this news in The Tyee after the election.

Since then I've learned the NDP undertook significant swing riding polling during the 2009, 2005 and even the disastrous 2001 election campaigns -- but not in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Liberals were doing daily tracking polls in 25 key ridings, giving them instant feedback on messaging, NDP vulnerability and where to allocate resources.

But the NDP continued believing they were well ahead and bound for glory, until 8:30 p.m. on election night, when the easy victory turned into an historic defeat.

And yet Topp's report doesn't even mention the lack of swing riding polling, let alone why it was rejected as a tool for the first time in over a decade.

Nor does it explain the reasons behind a late campaign switch in pollsters from Environics to Strategic Communications.

Both did province-wide polling similar to public polls conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion and Ipsos that wrongly showed the NDP ahead through the whole campaign, though StratCom's numbers had it a much tighter race and even put the Liberals slightly ahead by a point five days out before the NDP regained the lead.

Topp's report instead obliquely says: "Critics of our campaign have had a lot to say about what they think they know about our tracking polling during the campaign. In hindsight, there were more fundamental issues with the way we researched this campaign that should not be repeated."

(Ironically, the only time Dix got a boost in the party's own polling was after the televised debate -- which not coincidentally was the only time Dix launched a withering attack on Premier Christy Clark. While some retroactively argue Dix lost the debate, several polls, public and the NDP's formerly private poll, show clearly that Dix bested Clark.)

Removed from BC

Topp also picked and directed the "war room" staff of political operatives who prosecuted the campaign, including fellow Jack Layton veterans Brad Lavigne and Anne McGrath from Ontario.

And as campaign manager, Topp also chose Toronto ad agency Open to produce the BC NDP's lacklustre election ads. Open created federal NDP election ads in 2011, when the party vaulted into second place, with Topp a senior advisor to Layton.

Topp also declined to come to B.C. early to get started on the campaign, instead participating remotely from Toronto before flying in a few weeks before the writ dropped.

And again the NDP wrongly acquiesced, presumably thinking British Columbia couldn't be that different from Ontario or a national campaign. It is.

The decision to roll out the NDP platform planks in the hostile territory of senior BC Liberal cabinet ministers -- where there were bad optics and limited supporters -- was another Topp choice, though one that he grudgingly acknowledges in the report, albeit with a dismissive reference.

"We paid a price for our plan to campaign in senior ministers' ridings (my idea, for those who are looking for the specific witch to burn on this issue)," Topp says.

As I've written at length, Dix made plenty of mistakes -- demanding long in advance a campaign that didn't go negative, switching positions mid-election to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline -- and took ultimate responsibility for it by resigning his leadership last week.

But Dix wasn't driving the campaign bus, writing the ad copy, advancing the tour stops and running the war room!

A tough job, but...

Ultimately in a campaign every leader, no matter how strongly held their views, has to defer to the campaign manager.

That was no different in 1996 when I was communications director to NDP premier Glen Clark in the upset election win over BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell. Glen Clark had clear ideas about that challenging election but campaign manager Hans Brown called the shots.

So it's admittedly a very tough job filled with difficult decisions and huge consequences where just one mistake can cost an election.

Topp is a talented man who has been around political campaigns for decades, as well as almost becoming leader of the federal New Democrats, coming second to Tom Mulcair in 2012. And having known Topp for over 35 years, I take no pleasure in drawing my conclusions.

But, although Topp does take responsibility for certain "errors of strategy," he avoids doing so for other critical decisions -- decisions that ultimately led to an election fail for the B.C. New Democrats.  [Tyee]

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