John Laschinger is Canada’s only full-time campaign manager, as far as he knows.
He has run a grand total of 50 campaigns in his career, which means he’s lost some, but won more. (His ratio is 20:30.) Campaign Confessions, his second book, came after he ran his 50th campaign, Olivia Chow’s run for Toronto mayor in 2014.
When asked about retirement, he says, “not so fast,” before giving a vague description of a “young guy” he’s been talking to who is thinking of jumping into a provincial-level leadership race. All he would say is that it’s not in Alberta, where former MP Jason Kenney is currently running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party.
In his new book, which came out this September, Mr. Laschinger (whose first line of his book reads, “Call me Lasch”) promises untold tales from behind the scenes, and plenty of fodder for political junkies looking for a fix. The stories hail from saunas in Kyrgyzstan, include a briefcase full of cash, and tricks of the trade from a veteran politico. The Hill Times sat down with the old pro to talk more about his book, and to ask him to take the temperature of some current lively campaigns.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and/or length.
What motivated you to start the book?
“I sat down with a friend of mine, who used to write for the Globe and Mail, Geoff Stevens, who helped me with the book. We did a book, Leaders and Lesser Mortals, in ‘92. At that time I’d finished 20 campaigns, and now I’ve finished 50. It was time to pass on some lessons to people who run campaigns, or who want to be candidates. Over the years, with Leaders and Lesser Mortals, I’d be running a campaign and somebody opposite from me, a Liberal or an NDP [would say] ‘I just pulled your book out again, because I wanted to refresh myself.’ So they were using that against me. And then all of a sudden, it became obvious that there’s a lot of nice
stories, a lot of good stories, in there. Tales that nobody’s ever heard before. And that people, political junkies, love to know [stories of] what really happened in this or that campaign.”
What do you think is the biggest lesson you’re conveying to readers?
“There’s two lessons. In every election, there are two forces at play. The first force is ‘time for a change;’ do we want to keep the bum; or do we want to throw the bums out? And, in my business, you can quantify that. If it gets to a certain level, the candidate’s in trouble. If it doesn’t get to that level, the incumbent will survive. John Tory, running against [Dalton] McGuinty in 2007, the ‘time for a change’ number was 50 per cent.”
How do you determine the ‘time for a change’ number, through polling?
“Yeah. You ask a quantitative question. Some people say that the government has done a pretty good job, and that they deserve to be elected for another four years. Other people say, the government’s done a really poor job, and it’s time for another party to take over. Which is closest to your opinion? ‘Time for a change’ was 50 per cent for McGuinty, 41 per cent was keep him. That means McGuinty’s going to get re-elected. This is in a three-way race. And on election day, he got 41 per cent of the vote. And we got 26, and NDP got whatever the rest was. The magic number is 60 per cent. Any time a government has more than 60 per cent of people wanting to get rid of them, they’re gone.”
Is there ever a time when that doesn’t work?
“Hillary Clinton. ‘Time for a change’ right now is 70 per cent in the States, and yet she’s winning. Why? Because [Donald] Trump has successfully positioned himself as unfit to be president. He [represents] change, but scary change. So that’s one force.
“The second force is managing expectations. In life, people describe people as winners if they beat expectations. If they lose, they can still lose the election, but they beat expectations. People expect them to do badly, but they did a little bit better. In the stock market, a company goes up when they report earnings that beat expectations. If you miss expectations, the stock price goes down. It’s the same in politics. You can go up or down, and how people see you [is] in relation to what they expect to see. Harper spent a whole bunch of money driving down the expectations of Justin Trudeau. Nice hair, just not ready for the job. All those ads, [they] were very cute, but they succeeded in pushing the bar down so low, that when Trudeau was first seen by the people, he could easily step over that bar. He could beat that bar. All of a sudden, ‘he’s not that bad. I think he’s a winner.’”
Has there been a moment in your career where there’s been a big surprise, and something that wasn’t reflected in the polls?
“No. Numbers never lie. People say, ‘well, how come nobody said that Rachel Notley was going to win a majority [in Alberta]?’ Well, if you looked at the numbers, people seemed to ignore them, but they were there. The other thing is, nobody does any bad polling. They might have different methodology, but you see the trend lines. The biggest problem with polling lately has been they don’t do it right up until the end.”
What’s been your most satisfying campaign?
“I think the David Miller campaign. 2003. Mayor of Toronto. We started out at two per cent in the polls. Barbara Hall, the former mayor, was at 50-plus per cent. There was a whole bunch of people down around three, four, five, six per cent. And that was a campaign I used negative advertising for one of the first times. But I used it against myself. I ran a couple of radio spots that said ‘don’t vote for David Miller.’ But I put them in the words of a lobbyist, in a deep, growly, rough voice, ‘I’m a lobbyist, for Double Trouble Inc., and David Miller wants to change the rules at city hall. He wants to put me out of business, and I won’t be able to
lobby anymore. I won’t be able to send my kids to private school, and I won’t be able to take holidays in the Cayman Islands anymore. For god’s sake, don’t vote for David Miller.’ I ran those, and we got noticed. People started to talk about us, and our numbers started to creep up. Then a week after, the advertising agency came back to me, and they said, ‘this has been a great success,’ and they had a whole program laid out for the rest of the campaign. Buttons, brochures, ‘don’t vote for David Miller,’ for the rest of the campaign. I said, ‘no, no, no.’ I just wanted to do this to get noticed, now we got to tell them why they should vote for us, once they start talking about us. And on election day we won. We won by a good majority over John Tory.”
‘This is a blood sport. They want you to be aggressive.’
So what changed there? Barbara Hall had the numbers in her favour, so how did that come about?
“She ran a front runner’s campaign. Didn’t want to rock the boat, didn’t want to say anything bad about anyone, just sort of wanted to slide through. And people don’t want you to slide through. This is a blood sport. They want you to be aggressive, they want you to be in the game, they want you to be taking positions, they want you to show what you’re made of. And so when her vote all fell down—her vote was left of centre, and centre—and as it fell apart, [it] went to the left-of-centre candidate, David Miller.”
What do you think of the current Canadian political scene? People are saying that Trudeau is in this prolonged honeymoon stage, and is untouchable. What do you see happening?
“It’s pretty obvious to me. I’ve been following it from Toronto, and in the media. There’s no opposition leaders. Both opposition parties have no leaders. They have interim, but that’s it. He’s got a free run. He’s running around a track with no opposition. The last two or three months, the media has started to become the opposition. They’re stepping up, ‘well, what about this promise you made?’ Electoral reform is the last one.”
What’s your take on the Conservative leadership election right now?
“A lot of people in the race. Only a few of them seem to have been getting noticed. Maxime Bernier from Quebec, I guess. I think [Erin] O’Toole could surprise. He’s got a number of MPs supporting him, and that’s important in this thing. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I’m led to believe that on the first ballot, he was ahead of [Rona] Ambrose for the selection of the interim leadership. So he’s got some support in there. He’s got a bit of experience. He’s the right age, he comes from Montreal. His French is not as good as it should be, but he can fix that I think. He’s got an interesting background, and he fixed up Veterans Affairs.”
There’s still a long ways to go in that race.
“There may be some more people who show up. There’s been talk of a business executive out of Montreal thinking about it. I don’t think that will happen, but there’s people still kicking the tires a bit. Because there seems to be a sense from the media that this race has underwhelmed people.”