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Updated: 19th May 2019 05:29Edmonton

OPINION | There comes a time in every campaign when the candidate just wishes it was over

The final days of the campaign are filled with potential hazards and corresponding anxiety for the candidate. Former MLA and MP, and now political columnist, Brent Rathgeber on the trials of the campaign trail.

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Election finish line is in sight

Door-knocking shifts can be exhausting and leave you limping and with butterflies in your stomach, says columnist Brent Rathgeber. (Ken Tannenbaum/Shuttershock)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one opinion. Under the heading Opinion, we are carrying a range of different points of view on the issues facing Albertans during the current election. You can find them on our Alberta Votes 2019 page.

There comes a time in every campaign when the candidate just wishes it were over.  

Possibly disheartened by rejection at the doors — or physically exhausted and nursing blisters on feet surrounded by shoes worn-out from door-knocking — a person vying for public office can get to the point of wishing the public part was done.

Welcome to the final days of the election campaign.  

There is, however, no time for rest or self-pity. The race is not yet won (or lost). As a candidate you must dig in and persevere — dig down deep and summon the energy and fortitude to make it across the finish line.

I know. I've been there. I've run for office here in Alberta five times —  federally and provincially. I've won. I've lost. I know what can go wrong in the final days of a campaign.

The short answer is: almost anything.

The HR crisis

I always feared, and to some extent experienced, the dreaded "HR crisis" in the waning days of a campaign.

The fear that keeps you up late at night is losing one of your senior folks.

To lose a campaign manager or "election day chair" without time to replace a pivotal element would be devastating. In 2008, I lost a senior member of my campaign team due to internal bickering. I was physically nauseous when I heard about it. I imagined not being able to get our identified supporters to the polls. I felt it in my stomach.

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Thankfully, we had adequate time for the tasks to be reassigned. But still.

Campaigns are perpetually short on volunteers, especially experienced ones.    

By this point, your volunteers have been working together for several weeks. The hours are becoming longer and the pressure to get the job done is intensifying.

People are unpredictable and in the pressure cooker of a political battle, emotions frequently run high. Maybe a little yelling, a bit of profanity and more than a few tears.

I recall in 2011 a shouting match between two phone volunteers so loud that one of them had to be escorted out of the campaign office.    

In 2015, I had an HR crisis of another kind — simply too few volunteers had signed up for my independent campaign. So, during many door-knocking shifts, we were short-handed; sometimes I even went out by myself. I was exhausted and disheartened; I was beginning to limp from physical exhaustion and developed "butterflies" in my stomach during the lonely door-knocking shifts.


We ran so short-staffed and everyone was exhausted. We asked so much of our volunteers. Several quit, compounding the problem.

The real problem was on election day.  

Many of the rural voters who participated in the focus group felt like the parties attacking one another had taken over the focus from election issues. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

We had too few volunteers to put scrutineers at every poll plus staff the phones. So notwithstanding that we had identified several thousand supporters, we lacked the "machine" to determine if they actually voted. And we had little in terms of resources to get our supporters to the polls.

This caused severe anxiety and several sleepless nights on my part — as I laid in bed and worried that all of my hard work would go unrewarded.

But I lost that election by such a wide margin that I doubt very much that even had we had a more effective get-out-the-vote deployment, it would have made any difference.

More on losing in a minute, but first, just plain demoralization.

Burnout and demoralization

Campaigning is a far cry from kissing babies and attending county fairs.

Doors sometimes get slammed in your face. People rudely hang up on you. It takes some thick skin to survive an electoral campaign.

My worst door-knocking experience occurred during my first campaign in 2001. I was spat upon by a voter unhappy with the current state of the health-care system.  However, this pales in comparison to another candidate I knew, who had a gun pulled on him over the very same issue.

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It is hard not to get demoralized and the candidate must look after not only his spirits, but also the spirits of the campaign volunteers, who sometimes bear a larger portion of any abuse. I have had volunteers quit mid-shift.

Ideally, it should be the volunteers who work to boost the candidate's spirits.  But I found that as the candidate, you must never lose sight of the fact that they are volunteering for you. Thus, as the candidate, you do what you can to keep your volunteers happy and motivated.

Motivated volunteers are key. They are out there singing your praises and gathering data. Which leads to another anxiety.

Data loss

A big fear towards the end of any campaign was a potential data loss.  

Through all that door-knocking and phone solicitation, your campaign will have complied data on several thousand voters, who would then be cajoled into actually voting.

This information is kept in data banks. However, I had an irrational fear that somehow through a virus, malware, sabotage or other cause, that all of our data would be lost, rendering the hours and hours of time identifying voters pointless.

Unexpected derailments can stop a campaign cold, Rathgeber says. (CBC)

I often had paper copies made of our data, so that no matter how severe a technical breakdown, we'd still have it come election day.

Throughout my five campaigns, we never lost our data, but I never stopped worrying we would.

You always need to expect the unexpected.

The unexpected derailment

The big fear is always that something entirely outside your control will derail the entire campaign.  

A misstep by the leader of the party you are running for, or bozo eruption by another candidate of the same party. This can cause the wheels to come off your local campaign.

Then there's the outside forces. One derailed my independent campaign in 2015.

Literally, in the final days of that campaign, Trudeau's national Liberal bandwagon drove through Edmonton-St. Albert taking a wide swath of my soft supporters with it. These were voters unhappy with the Harper government and therefore likely to support a Harper dissident.  

I had some soft conservative support, but the polls showed a probable Trudeau victory. And that cost me dearly. Certain voters were content to vote for an independent conservative until they feared a Liberal victory nationwide.

Accordingly, a significant number of voters went back to the Conservative candidate in an attempt to stop the Liberal juggernaut.

I estimate that I lost several thousand votes in the final days of that campaign as a result of national polling trends and events entirely outside of my control. Not a happy time.

And then, there's losing.

The concession speech

I think most candidates are plagued by a fear of losing.

That reality sets in during the final days of the campaign.

Losing is tough. Delivering a concession speech is the hardest speech you will ever make. It's challenging to be gracious in the face of electoral failure.

Congratulating the victor takes intestinal fortitude, especially following a nasty campaign or when the candidates do not like each other.

In 2015, I felt that I had let my supporters and financial donors down. I felt guilty that I was unable to deliver on the promise of a less partisan politics.

For incumbents, losing an election also means unemployment. When I lost in 2015, I lost my job and so did five political staffers. The candidate feels that pressure and guilt occurs when the reality sets in that people you care about are losing their jobs.

Very nearly there

The final days of the campaign are filled with potential hazards and corresponding anxiety for the candidate. What happens a few days from now will be life altering, either way.

I cannot explain the euphoria I felt following a campaign well run.

In 2001, I won by less than 500 votes. It was the Herculean effort of the get-out-the-vote team that made the difference.

Exhausted, I felt a "jogger's high" at the end of that campaign and was eternally grateful for the volunteers responsible for that narrow victory.

In a couple days there will be victory laps and concession speeches.

The finish line is in sight; only two more (largely sleepless) nights.

About the Author

Brent Rathgeber

Brent Rathgeber QC served as a Progressive Conservative member of the Alberta legislature, representing Edmonton-Calder from 2001 to 2004. He represented Edmonton-St. Albert in the House of Commons as a Conservative from 2008-2013, before resigning from caucus to sit as an Independent until 2015.

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