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Canada Time is ripe for Conservatives to steal a Liberal idea: galvanize their base

To their own surprise as much as anyone's, the Conservatives are set to celebrate the highest voter turnout for any recent federal leadership vote.

Unexpectedly high membership sales drove the pool of eligible voters from about 80,000 late last year to almost 260,000 by the time ballots were mailed out to them this spring. And party officials were suggesting this week that more than half those ballots would be returned in time to be counted on Saturday.

If so, the total number of votes will be considerably higher than when Stephen Harper was elected Conservative leader, and when Justin Trudeau was chosen to lead the Liberals. It would be more than double the last time an Official Opposition party, the NDP in 2012, held such a contest.

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For a party that spent more than a year hearing about (and in some of its own corners lamenting) the campaign's inadequacies – the perceived lack of star candidates, underwhelming or off-putting ones crowding the field and less-than-scintillating leadership debates – that vote total could make for some sense of victory no matter who emerges at its helm.

But what will matter more, in the long run, is whether the new leader is able to leverage the engagement in this campaign into something the Conservatives have been sorely lacking, in recent years, relative to their opponents: sustained on-the-ground activism.

No matter how many dues-paying members the Conservatives could boast, mobilizing them to knock on doors in ridings during campaigns or even just serve as local ambassadors for the party was something Mr. Harper's team increasingly failed to do as his era wore on.

Although some individual Members of Parliament fostered and maintained strong local organizations, centrally run volunteer training was neglected. And as the party became more and more hierarchical, demanding from its candidates and their teams rigid discipline and not much more, there was little effort to empower foot soldiers across the country or make their participation particularly inviting.

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The calculus, in part, seemed to be that political volunteerism was generally on the decline, so rather than pushing hard against that trend, it was better to invest in paid forms of voter contact, such as call centres. And the Tories were better-positioned than any other party to bankroll such efforts, along with massive advertising campaigns, not just during writ periods but leading up to them: Their fundraising machine was, and remains, a beast.

But if anything, the realities of the information age – growing difficulty reaching people by phone, declining audiences for television advertising – makes in-person contact more important than ever. And campaigns really can't rely on mercenaries for that, both because of scale and because research shows that volunteers who believe in the cause are more effective at winning over new supporters, identifying existing ones, and encouraging all concerned to actually vote. So in the past federal election, the Tories found themselves at a considerable disadvantage to opponents who had put in the work to energize their grassroots – likely costing them at least a few close ridings, and widening their margin of defeat in ones they would have lost regardless.

The new leader is about to have a golden opportunity to prove the lesson was learned.

An average of somewhere approaching 400 people per riding, albeit far from evenly distributed, showed enough commitment to buy a membership (with the party making an unusual effort to make sure new members paid their own $15 fee) and complete a somewhat arduous voting process that included mailing in a copy of photo identification. Some of them may be so disgruntled by their preferred candidate's defeat that they want nothing to do with the winner, and anecdotal evidence suggests a few newly minted Conservatives are habitual supporters of other parties who wanted to make sure someone such as Kellie Leitch didn't get a chance to become prime minister. But even consistently engaging a fraction of the new crowd would go a long way.

To achieve that, the Conservatives who will be tasked after this weekend with preparing for the next election would do well to study what the group around Justin Trudeau did when he took over the Liberals in 2013.

Rather than letting would-be activists drift away until they were needed for the next federal election – which, as with the Conservatives now, was 2 1/2 years away – Mr. Trudeau's Liberals aimed to build a sense of common purpose and community. Potential volunteers were initiated through social events, rather than immediately sending them out to pound the pavement, and periodic mass canvasses were meant to develop comfort with talking to voters before the campaign began. Once nominated, local candidates were constantly prodded to keep building and developing their volunteer base; social media was used to highlight and flatter volunteers who showed strong initiative.

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Sure, Mr. Trudeau had certain advantages during that process that the new Conservative leader may not – an unusual personal magnetism that made people want to associate with him, immediate unity behind him after a cakewalk of a leadership campaign, a comparatively young support base.

But surely many of the people who recently joined the Tories' ranks did so because, even if it just comes down to replacing a Liberal government they can't stand, they want to be part of something. There will be little time to waste, after the results are announced Saturday night, in taking them up on it.

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