Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Personal Chat with Nathan Cullen

Recently I won the Photos for Change competition held by the Nathan Cullen campaign (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, BC – NDP), along with two others. The purpose of the contest was to take a photo of your community that demonstrated why it is important to work together.

St. Catharines, ON from Brock University.

This is the photo I submitted. The photo is taken from the 10th floor of Schmon Tower at Brock University looking north to St. Catharines. In my description I said that the NDP will need to win ridings like St. Catharines to form a majority government, and that in St. Catharines often a majority of voters select left-wing parties, but the Conservatives hold the riding. After I was selected by the Team Cullen volunteers we arranged the call.

I must admit to being nervous before Mr. Cullen called. I think given my relative greenness in politics I’m still a little starstruck when meeting MPs and MPPs, though I am increasingly learning they are just regular people, for the most part. In addition I had met Mr. Cullen at an event in Welland, Ontario a few weeks ago.

Before calling me up Mr. Cullen and his team must have done a little checking on my involvement with the campaign because he immediately spoke to my involvement on the social media element. On that basis Mr. Cullen seemed quite interested in picking my brain over the role social media has in elections, how can it be used and where I think the leadership contest is at present. Our discussion about social media’s importance was particularly interesting, in my opinion. We both approach the issue from different perspectives – as candidate and a participant. Mr. Cullen told me that the social media numbers has been useful for the campaign in terms of media. The media like numbers, he said, and by being able to demonstrate interest the campaign can build a narrative and a story, and most important, gain attention.

Ironically, I pointed out the more pragmatic aspect of a social media audience. I argued that it could be used as an effective fundraising tool. If everyone one of Mr. Cullen’s 8632 Facebook followers donated $10 it would be a huge surge in fundraising. I argued that with large amounts of small donations, like the Obama 2008 campaign, it would be possible to return to those donors over and over again without exhausting them. Unsurprisingly this seemed to intrigue the leadership candidate.

Despite it being a brief phone call, lasting only 15-20 minutes I felt it highly meaningful. To be thanked by the candidate himself for my contribution to the discussion and the campaign made it feel like I was having a real influence on the outcome. After hanging up the phone I tweeted “It's a very different style of campaign, an accessible and open leader will be important in politics from here on out.” In this digital era people want to feel ownership of, and connection to their candidates. The fact that when I get a thank you call from the Cullen campaign for a donation it comes from a person is quite pleasant. The campaign has also taken on the mantra of “No robocalls!”, so all of their interactions are done by a person on the other end. Frankly after this campaign I’ll be happy to not hear another pre-recorded message for a while. To be able to directly interact with the campaign with social media is important to me. In fact, I was recruited by the campaign after making a positive remark about Mr. Cullen on Twitter during a debate by his dedicated followers.

The role of social media in future elections is unclear, but that’s part of this process. I think Team Cullen is on the right track with a lot of their moves, and more could be developed still. Furthermore, how this would work in a national campaign against rival parties is the real question.

Still, the conversation did not go the way I expected. I thought we would talk more about issues. I wanted to share my thoughts about the Enbridge pipeline and the connections to my own research for my major research paper on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project of the 1970s. Also I wanted to discuss an NDP strategy to appeal to and win the suburbs and rural areas of Canada, but there simply was not time. The fact that time was given at all important, and few people get such an opportunity, so I am not complaining.

I do not know who will win the leadership of the NDP. The preferential ballot could lead to an entirely unforeseen outcome. Hopefully the other campaigns are learning and adapting from this experience to become stronger organizations for the true test in 2015. 

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