How to get “What’s his name?” elected.

(Note: This post originally appeared as a column in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

Back in they early 2000s, I was with a group which commissioned an opinion poll to gauge potential support for a guy who had ambitions to lead a national political party.

As it turned out, the results proved a little embarrassing; actually, make that a lot embarrassing.

Indeed, the poll revealed our want-to-be leader was unknown to about 99 percent of the country’s population, which is not exactly encouraging news.

I mean, it basically meant our guy could stand at any one of Canada’s busiest intersections all day long waving a red flag and not a single passer-by would recognize him, which is another way of saying he lacked that one attribute which is so vitally important to politicians, i.e. name recognition.

It might not be fair, but the reality is if your last name is Eisenhower or Reagan or Schwarzenegger or Trump or Trudeau, you’ll have a big advantage in politics.

Yet, as it happened, that unknown politician in the early 2000s was eventually able to overcome his lack of national fame; his name was surprise, surprise —- Stephen Harper.

Yup, Stephen Harper, former Canadian prime minister, was once a non-entity as far as general voters were concerned.

And this should give at least some faint glimmer of hope to all those Conservative and New Democratic leadership candidates out there not named “Kevin O’Leary”, who are currently toiling in relative obscurity.

My point is, you don’t necessarily need to be a TV star celebrity to be a successful politician.

However, if you’re not famous it means you must work harder to get noticed.

In the United States, working harder usually means candidates will spend lots of money on self-promotional media ad campaigns, just to let voters know they exist.

For his part, Barack Obama, who let’s not forget was once a little known junior senator from Illinois, effectively used social media campaigns to raise his profile.

Of course, here in Canada our ridiculously super-tight rules, which limit how much money people can donate to politicians and which restrict how much money politicians can spend, make it virtually impossible for any candidate to mount an effective awareness-raising media campaign.

One unintended consequence of these restrictions, by the way, is they give a huge advantage to incumbents, since just holding office is usually enough to make you better known than most challengers.

And of course, these restrictions have little impact on celebrities running for office, since they don’t need paid advertising, their fame is usually enough to attract all sorts of free media attention.

Donald Trump’s presidential primary run proved this.

Anyway, getting back to strategy, let’s examine how Harper managed to overcome his relative obscurity.

What he did was essentially create for himself a brand.

For example, when running for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, he didn’t say vote for me because my name is Harper, he said vote for me because I’m a true conservative, I’m one of you, I’m part of your tribe.

His plan, in other words, was to identify himself with the party’s ideological conservatives in the hopes they would support one of their own.

And it worked.

Mind you, to pull off this tactic Harper needed to have the credentials and legitimacy to back up his claim that he was the true champion of conservatism, which is probably why in 1998, he took on the job as president of the right-wing National Citizens Coalition.

This is a lesson for anyone who has hopes for a career in politics, but who lacks star power.

Before you run for office, build yourself an identity.

 

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