For the first time at least since the good, old days (for Liberals) of that Chretien/Martin hegemony, the Liberal Party of Canada has had two successive quarters in which more Canadians cut a cheque to the red team than cut a cheque to the blue team.
The Conservatives, mind you, are still stomping all comers, Liberals included, so far as being able to fill up the war chest with cold, hard cash. Elections Canada reported today that the Conservatives pulled in $3.43 million in the three months ending Sept. 30, the third quarter for 2013, while the Liberals pulled in $2.17 million in the same period.
For the year so far (9 months worth of work), the Conservatives have sucked up $12.8 million in contributions compared to just $6.8 million for the Liberals.
But for the Liberals, dollar totals may not be as important as the number of donors. Historically, the Liberals relied most heavily on bigger donations from a smaller set of donors, often corporate donations. Then Jean Chretien banished corporate and union donations from our federal political finance scene though he brought in a taxpayer-funded subsidy parties could earn for every vote they got. When Stephen Harper became prime minister, he capped the maximum donation at $1,000 per year per party, candidate, or riding association (indexed to inflation mind you) and then, in his first budget after his 2011 majority win, announced that that public subsidy would end. The Liberals relied most heavily on that public subsidy and were slowest to transition to the new reality of political fundraising in Canada, in which parties thrive only if they can find lots and lots of donors ready to party with a small amount like $20 or $50 a month.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, quickly and capably adapted to the new era of finance back in 2005 and have dominated political fundraising every since.
Since the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2005, the the Liberals have had just one quarter — one in the 35 quarters since then — in which they have raised more money than the Tories. That quarter was the fourth quarter of 2006. And what was happening in Q4 2006? Well, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff were duking it out for the Liberal leadership that Stephane Dion would win. That leadership race was good for party coffers, putting more than $6.5 million in the war chest through contributions in those three months, compared to $5.6 million for the Conservatives.
But think about that last stat, though, for a moment.That leadership race was back in the day when Liberals — and everyone else in the country — absolutely believed that if you won the leadership of that great party, you were going to be prime minister one day. After all, every single leader but one since Confederation had, even if only briefly, won the top prize.
And yet, in the quarter when Liberals were busy determining who would be their next prime minister — or so they thought — the Conservatives (who also believed that Stephen Harper’s not even year-old stay at 24 Sussex was going to be a very temporary thing) went out and found 50,701 people who gave them a combined $5.6 million. Thats the sixth best haul the Conservatives have had in the last 31 quarters. And it was while their main opponent was pre-occupied with a leadership race.
The Liberals were kings of cash in that final quarter of 2006 but it came from a relatively small group, just 17,820 for an average contribution of $362 per donor. Liberal donors were still the most affluent of any party. But the small cheques from 50,000 people that the Conservatives got — average donation just $111 per donor that quarter — would be the base upon which the Conservatives would absolutely dominate fundraising. Those who cough up cash — no matter how small — also have some skin in the game that party HQ can exploit for all sorts of purposes, from drivers on election day to ‘volunteers’ who will hog the lines on talk radio shows to push the party line to advocates for the leader in gossip down at the coffee shop or legion hall. The Conservative army in the fourth quarter of 2006 was 50,000 strong. The Liberal army in the midst of a leadership race, just a third that big.
So where are we now?
Well, for the last two quarters, the Liberals have more donors than the Tories. The red army is getting bigger. That’s a first against Harper’s Conservatives. What’s been going on? Well, the second quarter began with the conclusion of the leadership race that everyone knew Justin Trudeau was going to win and Trudeau subsequently hit the road, finding more donors and more money for the next six months. The media love him. He’s a social media hound. He attracts crowds. Newsflash: Trudeau’s really good for raising money and finding new donors.
Trudeau became Liberal leader in April and in April, May and June, the Liberals improved over Q2 last year by 15,403 more donors. They’d never seen that kind of growth. The closest year-over-year growth was back in Q3 of 2011, the summer when Michael Ignatieff toured the country learning how to be a politician just before the fall election in which he would lead his party to its worst showing ever.
And in Q3 — remember this is the usually slower summer quarter of July, August and September — Trudeau kept going, finding 30,108 donors, an improvement of about 10,000 compared Q3 in 2012.
Some other comparisons: In the 8 quarters in which Dion led the party, Dion never came close in any quarter to raising what Trudeau raised in his first quarter and only in one of those quarters – Dion’s last one as he faced the 2008 election — would he narrowly beat Trudeau’s second quarter.
The Ignatieff -led Liberals did better at fundraising, averaging $2.16 million for the 11 quarters he was the Liberal boss. But third quarters were not good for Ignatieff. He raised $1.94 million in Q3 09 and $1.33 million in Q3 10 — that’s the summer Ignatieff spent criss-crossing the country on the Liberal Express before the disastrous election of next spring. When Bob Rae took over as interim leader after the May 2, 2011 election, the party put away $1.32 million Q3 11. Trudeau, in his first summer, hoovered up $2.22 million.
Trudeau’s first Q2 — his first quarter as leader — total of $2.99 million was bested just once by Ignatieff, when the party scored $3.88 million in contributions in the second quarter of 2011.
More importantly, the Ignatieff Liberal party could only dream of 30,000 donors in a quarter. Ignatieff averaged less than 19,000 donors a quarter. (Dion? Less than 11,000 a quarter!) Ignatieff was raising less money from fewer, richer Liberals. Trudeau is broadening the tent raising more money from more, less affluent Liberals. Just like the Conservatives.
And so the Liberals (finally) appear to be adjusting to the world of more donors who each give less rather than fewer donors who each give more. Remember that 4th quarter of 2006 in the midst of the leadership race Dion would win when those 17,820 averaged $362 a pop? Well, last quarter, those 30,108 donors averaged $72 per pop.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, averaged $118.56 per donor last quarter but they’ve got some issues. They’ve been annoying their donors with the smoldering Senate scandal which started in May. (See one donor’s angry comment to the PM reported in my column today: In Calgary, Will They Still Love Stephen Harper?) The results? While the third quarter of this year was great compared to the third quarter of last year for the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens — business at the Conservative Fund of Canada was less brisk — fewer donors, fewer cheques. That’s what tends to happen when the brand gets a little tarnished.
At the end of August — with just 30 days to go in the quarter just reported — Trudeau handed fundraising responsibilities to Stephen Bronfman. He’s a rich guy, the heir to the Bronfman fortune. It’s his job now to keep on finding Canadians who are ready to stake $25 a month on the idea of Justin Trudeau as PM.
Meanwhile, in Calgary this weekend, the Conservative Party’s chief fundraiser, Senator Irving Gerstein, is likely to get questions from party members about why part of the $40 a month they’re sending to HQ is being used to cover the legal bills of the likes of Mike Duffy and not being used to buy attack ads slamming Justin Trudeau.
P.S. I don’t want New Democrats to think I’m not impressed by how they keep chugging along but, for the purposes of this post, I was keen to compare Liberal versus Conservative numbers going back to the last three months of Paul Martin’s time as the country’s PM. After all, the Tories and the Liberals remain one-two in terms of fund-raising for, well, for almost always.