Former top Obama adviser Mitch Stewart talks about narrative building, melding cold, hard data, analytics at Broadbent Institute summit

Tim Naumetz / Hill Times

A former top campaign organizer for U.S. President Barack Obama, now working on a political action committee backing Hilary Clinton should she seek the presidency in 2016, gave closed-door briefings and workshops to union organizers, activists and NDP volunteers Thursday as part of a Broadbent Institute  “progress summit” for political action.

The workshops and strategy sessions by Mitch Stewart, a series of briefings that also featured members of the institute’s newly appointed field of high-profile “leadership fellows” also involved in the sessions, took place the day before the official start of the summit that headlines former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard as a somewhat controversial keynote speaker.

Elected as Australia’s Labour Party prime minister in 2010, Ms. Gillard included opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage among her main policy positions.

The two-day summit hosted by the Broadbent Institute—a left wing or progressive version of the Calgary-based Manning Centre, a right-wing training ground and networking institute founded by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning—features activists, authors, professors and social democrat politicians with panels and individual presentations covering a range of social and economic themes, including green politics, indigenous peoples’ rights social networking advocacy campaigns and defence of trade union rights.

Some of Parliament Hill’s top journalists, including author Susan Delacourt ofThe Toronto Star, Canadian Press bureau chief Heather Scoffield, and Maclean’s magazine columnist and author Paul Wells, are moderating several of the panels.

Mr. Stewart, founding partner at 270 Strategies, a longtime political activist, and Battleground States director for the Obama campaign in the 2012 presidential general election, was unable to speak in detail about his remarks and presentations behind the closed doors of “summit leadership training,” but explained them in general terms during an interview with The Hill Times.

A recent national Liberal policy convention in Montreal also featured closed-door campaign training sessions for party activists, but a presentation on online campaigning from another former Obama organizer was open to journalists.

“We talked about the lessons that we learned on the Obama campaign of running an effective campaign, running an effective organization, talking about setting goals, what are the strategies that can help you achieve those goals, and then what are the tactics that can help your strategy achieve those goals, giving some real-world examples and then workshopping a little bit with some Canadian specific examples,” Mr. Stewart said, without elaborating on the Canadian content.

“We’ll talk a lot this afternoon about relationship building, telling the story itself, narrative building, we’ll talk a lot about goal setting, and kind of melding the relationship-building aspects of the campaign with the cold, hard data and analytics of a campaign and how you employ the organization to help you achieve goals that the data and analytics inform,” he said.

Asked if Canadian political parties had reached the same level of sophistication as the Democrats and Republicans, in terms the kind of data-based voter contact campaigns and online networking that first propelled Mr. Obama into the White House and led to his re-election in 2012, Mr. Stewart replied: “I think they are exploring ways of trying to catch up. Your data and privacy acts are different here than they are in the United States. We have access to a lot more information than parties here do, to their voters. Not everything is transferable or replicable.

“In the United States, voter files are basically public information,” Mr. Stewart said. “If you’re a registered voter, everything you put down on your voter registration card, you could have access to, what your address is, anything you put down there,” Mr. Stewart said.

Importantly, electors in most of the states also register as either Democrat or Republican supporters. In Canada, that information can only be obtained through direct voter contact, either by door-to-door canvassing or telephone calling, and usually through election writ periods.

Although the Democratic Party maintains a vast database of state and federal electoral information centrally in Washington, D.C., it is securely guarded from unauthorized access from either inside or outside the party.

“We have a whole staff of people that manage, for sure, and most states have a person too,” Mr. Stewart said.

“The information on there, there is some proprietary information based on door knocks or phone calls, what candidates they support, but there are very tight limitations on what you can use a voter file for and what you can’t,” he said.

In a ruling over court challenges of the outcome in six federal election districts for the 2011 general election in Canada, based on allegations of fraudulent calls to voters who did not support the Conservative party, Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley said as part of his judgment that the voters’ home telephone numbers were likely drawn from the Conservative party’s main voter contact and information data base.

However, Judge Mosley ruled there was not enough evidence to rule that misleading calls in any of the six electoral districts affected the outcome of the vote.

A media relations expert providing consulting assistance to the Broadbent Institute, chaired by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, said summit attendees are not exclusively members or supporters of the NDP.

“There’s a wide group of grassroots volunteers, some of whom will likely be volunteering on NDP or for other political parties,” said Caitlin Kealey of MediaStyle.