Why do Conservatives fear Dogwood?

Want to make a difference in the federal election? Come work with Dogwood Initiative. At least, that’s what Conservative Party veterans like Stockwell Day and John Duncan seem to be saying.

If you needed evidence that our community organizers have pro-tanker incumbents worried, you only had to pick up the local paper in Parksville a few weeks ago.

“Anything done by Dogwood Initiative is a push poll,” alleged cabinet minister John Duncan, reacting to a survey we published from Insights West that found him in second place in his new riding.

“I could get any result I want with 300 phone calls just depending where I choose to phone,” said Duncan, criticizing us for “attempting to create environmental politics in B.C.”

As Chief Government Whip, Duncan is responsible for maintaining discipline among the troops. Like Frank Underwood on House of Cards, his job is to keep the Conservative caucus on a short leash. That’s why his outburst was so unusual.

A “push poll” is a nasty campaign tool imported from the U.S. It’s a robocall attack disguised as a survey. When you pick up the phone, you’re blasted with negative comments about a rival candidate, then asked if you agree. If you dial yes, you’re marked as a supporter.

The polls we’ve commissioned from Insights West – a professional research firm – are completely different. They’re using live callers to interview thousands of real voters in local ridings, multiple times during the campaign. The questions are neutral, nonpartisan and published alongside the results.

Still, our polls appear to have unnerved John Duncan. And they became the subject of another Conservative attack last week.

“Have you seen this article?” asked former Conservative minister Stockwell Day in a fundraising email to supporters. “It references a poll bought and paid for by an extreme activist group attempting to influence the results of the election.”

Day has the last part right. We are trying to influence the results of the election. Just not in the way his partisan paranoia would suggest.

Our teams are working flat-out this summer to connect with thousands of voters in battleground ridings. We’re meeting people on doorsteps and sidewalks, asking them how they feel about Ottawa’s attempts to force unwanted oil tanker projects on an unwilling province.

In its short-sighted drive to ram through diluted bitumen exports to Asian refineries, the current government has violated the core democratic values of a majority of people in this province, including a great many conservatives.

To facilitate private proposals by Enbridge and Kinder Morgan, the feds have torn up environmental laws and undermined government scientists. They’ve weakened the pipeline review process and shut those most affected out of the decision. They’ve ignored First Nations rights and title, sent CSIS spies after law-abiding citizens, and monkey-wrenched international climate negotiations.

The oil tanker issue opens a door to a much bigger conversation about what it means to be a citizen in British Columbia, and what we want for our country and our democracy. That’s why we want people to vote – not for parties, but for individual candidates who are empowered by their friends and neighbours to stand up for B.C., defend our coast from oil tankers and help rebuild our democracy.

That is not meant to exclude conservatives. We’re serious about Dogwood being a nonpartisan organization. Not only do we welcome conservatives to our ranks, we’ve implored Conservative Party candidates to buck the party line and stand up for their constituents.

So far they refuse, choosing to attack us instead. If they keep it up, it’s going to cost them some key ridings.

Here’s why: Dogwood Initiative is one of the few organizations in the country with an organizing system proven to increase local turnout in elections.

We ran a study of our Get Out The Vote program in the 2014 municipal election in Vancouver, where Dogwood has more than 40,000 contactable supporters. After the election we randomly selected 3,000 supporters, then manually checked the voter list, one by one, to see whether they voted or not.

(The voter list is available for public inspection for 30 days following an election. It doesn’t show who you voted for, just whether you voted. Political parties actually send employees to copy addresses and names from the list – our team just checked off “yes” or “no” on our own spreadsheet.)

In the 2011 Vancouver election, turnout was 34.57 per cent, with 144,823 ballots cast. In 2014 that jumped to 43.43 per cent, with 180,668 ballots cast. We wanted to know how much we may have contributed to that increase.

Once we had the turnout data we divided up our sample into different cohorts, depending how we contacted those supporters during the election.

People we didn’t contact at all voted at 66.89 per cent. That’s an impressive baseline. It shows that people who support Dogwood’s campaigns are engaged citizens who vote.

People who received our campaign emails voted at 69.88 per cent.

But people who received email and had a real conversation on the phone with a volunteer during the last week of the campaign voted at a striking 79.41 per cent.

Some of our most effective callers were actually a cohort of teenage volunteers whose message was “I can’t vote, but you can”. In every case we asked callers to focus the conversation on values and geography they had in common, what was at stake in the election and why it was so important to vote.

At no point did we tell people who to vote for – and I think that may have been key to our success.

Most of the supporters we contacted were also getting dialed every night by the parties. They were getting robocalls from candidates, fundraising appeals, partisan attacks and all the rest. Yet the ones who got a real phone call from a neighbour volunteering for Dogwood were more likely to vote.

Why? Maybe because Dogwood is not a party. We don’t have a horse in the race. We focus on issues of serious concern to our supporters, then ask candidates to explain where they stand. We trust our supporters to decide if and how that factors into their ballot box decision.

Last November, voter turnout climbed in all the coastal municipalities where our teams worked to get out the vote – Vancouver, Esquimalt, Victoria, Burnaby, New Westminister and Courtenay. The one exception was Sooke, where turnout held steady at 42 per cent – but we won a plebiscite on oil tankers, 70 per cent to 30.

With the federal election looming, some of our supporters say they’re focused on strategic voting. They want to know who’s got the best chance of beating a pro-tanker Conservative incumbent, and they don’t care as much what colour jersey their next MP wears – green, orange or red.

The problem is, if you ask the parties each will say, “It’s us! We have the best chance of winning.” If you ask the national pollsters they’ll give you averages for the country or the province as a whole, which might be irrelevant in a local race. That’s one reason we commissioned Insights West – to provide independent, high-resolution polling data to help residents figure out what’s going on in battleground ridings, right up to the last week of the election.

At the same time we’re surveying candidates in all 42 ridings in B.C. to hear their ideas on eight key issues selected by Dogwood organizers: Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, U.S. thermal coal exports, climate change, Canada’s relationship with First Nations, democratic reform, government surveillance – and finally, what they’ll do in the event of a minority parliament after the election.

So, if you prefer to vote on party policy – or you’re looking for the representative who best shares your values – those answers should help you with your research. Again, we’re not going to tell anyone who to vote for. Our job is to make sure Dogwood supporters get the info they need and turn out to vote in high numbers.

But there’s no shortcut to inspire people who are fed up with politics to participate in a flawed and fragile democracy. It’s hard bloody work. To have any impact on this federal campaign we need to have thousands upon thousands of real conversations with real voters.

That’s where you come in.

I recognize that some people have loyalties to specific candidates or parties, or their union, and that’s who they’re going to work with during the campaign. Leadnow and other groups are also organizing third-party election campaigns, so in B.C. ridings where they’re taking the lead we’re suggesting that volunteers join existing efforts. But for everyone else who loves this province and wants to be proud of who they send to Ottawa, we’re here to help you make a real, measurable difference in the election. The parties are mostly fighting over the same pool of voters. We’re working to increase the overall number of citizens who engage in grassroots politics.

The national pundits are starting to realize what we’ve been saying for months: what happens in B.C. in October could very well shape the future of this country. Our 42 ridings are the last to be counted, and the outcome will determine the final seat counts for each party in the next parliament.

If we elect anything other than a whipped, bloc-voting pro-tanker majority, a number of possibilities open up.

For starters, the Greens, Liberals and NDP are all ready to pass a bill banning crude oil tankers on B.C.’s North Coast. That would bring Canada’s laws in line with existing Indigenous law in the area, ending Enbridge’s Northern Gateway proposal. The Liberals and NDP both say they will overhaul the pipeline review process, with implications for Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion project. (The Greens oppose it outright.) And the opposition parties are each committed to some form of electoral reform before the next election.

So far Conservative candidates have offered none of that. If that holds true up to the election, I assume our supporters will vote for their opponents. That’s why the Conservative Party is worried, and that’s why they’ve swivelled their guns on Dogwood.

If you can handle a bit of partisan nonsense from Stockwell Day, and you’re willing to put in an hour here and there to inspire your friends and neighbours to vote, we’re ready with training and tools to help you unlock your organizing superhero alter-ego. No experience necessary.

Sign up here and you’ll get a phone call from your local Dogwood election team.

Join a team!

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