How Jagmeet Singh Won

Brad Lavigne

For Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, the obstacles to winning the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party seemed formidable. But as Brad Lavigne, a veteran strategist and senior adviser to the late Jack Layton, writes, the campaign was a triumph of organization and messaging over conventional wisdom.

In the back of a second-floor ballroom at the Westin Harbour Castle Conference Centre in downtown Toronto, a group of older Jagmeet Singh supporters were listening intently as New Democratic Party of Canada President Marit Stiles and Vice President Hans Marotte were about to announce, in alphabetical order, the results of the first round of balloting for NDP leader.

It only took a second after the announcement of the vote count for Ontario MP Charlie Angus for the supporters at the back of the room to calculate the outcome.

“He’s got it,” one man cheered to no one in particular. “He did it,” roared another.

With 53.8 per cent of the vote on the first ballot, it wasn’t just a clear and decisive victory, it was a drubbing.

Of the 124,733 eligible voters, 65,782 or 52.9 per cent New Democrats cast a ballot. Singh received 35,266 or 53.8 per cent of the eligible votes cast, 22,561 more votes than Angus, the second-place candidate. Over 5,000 more New Democrats voted for Jagmeet Singh to be leader than those that voted for his three rivals combined.

Singh’s campaign raised more money, signed up more new members and gained more support than his rivals—by every measure.

He did so by overcoming significant obstacles.

He was the only non-federal politician on the ballot, with the least experience on national and global issues. He had little if any name recognition outside of the region where he was elected as an MPP six short years ago. And, unlike other candidates, he faced questions and commentary more focused on his race and religion than on his vision and ideas for a stronger party and a better Canada.

Yet despite these conditions, Singh, just as another outsider, Jack Layton, did 14 years earlier, ignored the skeptics, defied the odds, and won the federal NDP leadership on the first ballot.

Behind the charismatic candidate there was a young, highly talented and energetic campaign team who, in their inaugural federal effort, ran a near- flawless campaign on the ground and in the air.

The ground game for the 18-week campaign, was laid out in three phases: first, start off strong (and never let up) on fundraising; second, sign up new members before the August 17 deadline; and third, engage pre-existing members before the start of voting on September 18.

The first public and measurable evidence that the Singh campaign had organizational muscle was the Elections Canada report on second quarter fundraising.

It is not a given that the candidate who raises the most money will automatically win the most votes—but it’s an indication of the breadth and depth of support and the organizational prowess of the campaign. You don’t automatically win if you raise a lot of money, but you never win if you don’t.

Singh entered the race on May 15 with just six weeks left in the second quarter of 2017. Despite his late start, his campaign raised more money in half of Q2 than his rivals fundraised combined—for the entire quarter. In one and a half months, Singh raised $356,784, while Angus, Ashton and Caron combined raised a total of $240,703 over three months.

To accomplish this feat, the campaign was unapologetic in its fundraising focusing on three areas: networking with people who have never supported the party before, especially among professionals, small business people and other professionals; events that catered to small as well as maximum donors; and digital fundraising harnessing Singh’s impressive online presence on multiple social media platforms.

The campaign employed a culture of appreciation that ensured donors were seen not just as a source of revenue for the campaign but enablers of everything it did. This all-out, six-week sprint to have an expectations-defying fundraising result not only gave the campaign momentum, it impressed pre-existing members and the media. It also meant they could hire organizers to sign up new members, who in turn were also new donors.

Successful leadership contests with a one-member-one vote formula need to do two things: sign up new members and get those new members to vote.

At the Singh campaign’s launch on May 15 in Brampton, attendees were met at the door by a volunteer with a clipboard. One friend told me she was greeted by a teenager wearing a Jagmeet for leader t-shirt. She asked him how long he’d been doing this kind of work and he replied that this was his fourth campaign for Jagmeet. Two days later she received a call from the campaign asking how she wanted to help.

In the beginning of the campaign, the Singh team had set the goal of signing up 40,000 new members before the August 17 cut-off. That meant the team had no less than 13 weeks to sign up over 3,000 new members, each and every week throughout the summer. Sign-ups started slow and grew exponentially. They reached their goal a few weeks before the cut-off so they adjusted their goal to 45,000 new members. In the end the campaign had signed up 47,000 new members, an average of 500 per day.

To achieve these impressive results the campaign employed a model of distributed leadership, which in practice employed a Captain System. Individuals who volunteered to sign up members (Captains) would set their own goals and targets and set out meet them.

Team Leaders would then hold the Captains accountable by constantly checking in on progress and would offer assistance when people fell behind. Throughout the country there were hundreds of Captains and dozens of Team Leaders. The same Captain that signed up a new member stayed in contact with that person and was later responsible for ensuring that each and every one of their sign-ups voted.

While the comprehensive ground game was being employed, in the air, the Singh campaign worked hard to define the ballot question. Instead of re-assessing the 2015 election campaign or getting into war of words over which leader was more like Bernie Sanders, the campaign wanted to establish who was the growth candidate for the NDP and who could win in 2019. This occurred in parallel with the sign-up period.

A second element was to position Singh not just as the choice among the four leadership contenders, but to juxtapose him against Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer. This was illustrated during the release of the campaign’s fundraising totals where the Singh campaign compared their total, not to Angus’s, Ashton’s and Caron’s total, but to Trudeau’s and to Scheer’s when they were running for leader of their respective parties.

But it wasn’t just the well-executed strategic and technical aspects of the campaign that are noteworthy. It was a campaign whose central message of “Love and Courage” was an authentic embodiment of the candidate himself. The compelling life story of Jagmeet Singh was a magnet for new Canadians, people of colour and those who don’t see themselves in this country’s leaders.

Trudeau may know the lyrics to the Canadian story of the struggles of inclusiveness and belonging. Singh and his campaign actually know the tune because they have lived it. That’s why their near-flawless campaign is what makes them so dangerous to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.

Contributing writer Brad Lavigne is a Principal at Counsel Public Affairs. Over the past 20 years, he has worked on campaigns at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. He was the 2011 NDP National Campaign Director and is the author of the bestselling book Building the Orange