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Why you probably haven’t heard from your local candidate

Today is the day campaign advertising starts being allowed. If you start from the premise that an engaged electorate is an inherently good thing, the end of the blackout should probably be considered a welcome development – because it looks like a lot of us aren’t going to have much interaction with parties or candidates any other way.

As part of a generally fascinating survey of voters – seriously, if you’re interested in knowing more about the electorate, the whole thing merits a look – Abacus Data asked respondents to indicate all the parties or candidates that had contacted them since the election started.

Fully 71 per cent indicated there had been no contact whatsoever. The Liberals and Progressive Conservatives had managed to reach 15 per cent of voters each; the New Democrats only 10 per cent.

The survey, through an online panel of 2,000 eligible voters, was taken from May 14-16 – so 12-14 days after the campaign unofficially began. It’s fair to assume that most local campaigns took a few days to get off the ground, so candidates and their parties will probably be getting to voters at a better clip going forward.  But they’ll also probably be re-engaging with target voters rather than only speaking to new ones, so it’s entirely possible that no party will make direct contact – we’re talking not just in person, but by phone, e-mail, social media, or just a flyer left at the door – with even half the electorate.

There’s not a great deal of research, to my knowledge, on precisely how much of that sort of interaction was achieved in past campaigns in this province or country. But talk to people working on the ground in this one, and you’ll get the sense that voter outreach is a lot harder than it used to be.

A pair of phenomena help explain why that is. Fewer and fewer of us have home phones, and those who do tend to have call display, so one of the prime points of contact just isn’t very effective anymore. That makes door-to-door canvassing more important than it was a decade or two ago, but the second change is that volunteerism is down – which means most local campaigns can’t get to as many doors as they used to, either.

The parties are responding to new realities by slowly getting more sophisticated in their outreach efforts. That means trying to find new ways to reach us, including an overdue push to figure out how to better use online communication for that. It also means using previous voter-identification and demographic data to try to only go to the doors where they’ll get maximum bang for their buck – those where there are likely to be voters amenable to persuasion efforts, or (more often) where likely supporters can be identified and then encouraged to vote.

Of course, if they use that data unwisely or can’t even reach the relatively narrow audiences they’re targeting, those who might be open to vote for them might never even properly hear their case. And fewer and fewer voters are going to directly hear from all the parties at once.

Which is to say, don’t take too much offence to what you’ll see during commercial breaks of hockey games or prime-time dramas the next three weeks. With time, as parties continue to shift to online advertising or radio spots that  can more easily be customized, the TV ads will be in shorter supply. For now, they might be the only way many Ontarians will hear from all the parties vying for their votes.

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