July 14, 2015 8:00 am

Here’s where your money goes if you donate to a political party

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with supporters following a campaign rally in Stratford, P.E.I., Sunday May 1, 2011.


Maybe you’ve seen the websites asking you to “Stand with PM Harper” or, similarly, to “Stand with Justin Trudeau.” Whoever you stand with, they’re currently asking for the same thing: donations.

But if you donate to a political party, where does that money go?

Largely, it’s ads. According to expenses reported by the NDP, Liberal and Conservative national campaigns last election, just over half of the money they spent went to advertising.


“So much of what we learn about political parties now is through the media,” said Harold Jansen, chair of political science at the University of Lethbridge and a researcher on party finance. Political parties have fewer volunteers and fewer members, he said, so fewer people have a personal connection to a party than they used to.

“So media matters, and media costs money,” he said. And it’s a lot of money: the top three parties last election each spent over $10 million on broadcast and non-traditional advertising for their national campaigns alone.

Story continues below

But advertising doesn’t do the job by itself – you need to know how to target it. This is where polling comes in.

“Increasingly parties want to fine-tune their messaging with public opinion polling. Find out how they’re doing, how voters are responding, change things up. That all costs a lot of money,” he said.

According to former Conservative strategist Tim Powers, now vice-chairman of Summa Strategies, a party might spend money to run an ad, then spend more money to poll voters to see whether the message landed.

Political parties also collect data on voters, he said, using it to predict their intentions and identify issues which are important to them. This information on individual voters is collected in databases and helps parties to target advertising messages and get out the vote, as well as identify potential swing ridings that they might be able to grab.

“It’s much more scientific and tactical than it was a few decades ago.”

Alex Bushell, a former NDP campaigner and current consultant for Environics Communications, said that parties typically regard polling costs as money well-spent. “While the polls are so close, we could be talking about a few hundred votes here or there, which could be decisive in which party ends up with the most seats or if somebody ends up with a minority or a majority.”

Polling can help parties decide where to direct their resources, he said. “With the micro-targeting, if you can use it to sway 1000 votes but pull five seats your way, the money if it’s expensive is probably well-spent in the party’s eyes.”

“We sort of have these very antiquated ideas that political parties are these groups of volunteers who get together and go around door-knocking. And at the local level, some of that still happens,” said Jansen. “But increasingly so much of what parties do on campaigns requires very fine-tuned, very careful scripted messaging to target particular pockets of voters.” Just finding those voters takes money too, he said.

But although political campaigns may be more high-tech than they used to be, the old-fashioned leader’s tour still takes up a huge chunk of parties’ budgets. Renting a plane isn’t cheap, and neither is paying for hotel rooms for everyone on that plane and feeding them. Paying staff salaries also eats up the budget.

Does money matter?

But does the party with the biggest bank account get the most votes? It’s not that simple.

“Money can’t buy love and money can’t always buy elections,” said Powers.

But, “It certainly gives you a decided advantage.”

Jansen agrees. “Money does matter but it’s not a straightforward, whoever spends the most is going to win.”

“Just having more money allows you to respond and adapt,” he said. If a political party recorded a bunch of ads, and then realizes that the tone of the campaign has changed, then having extra money allows them to re-record the ads to respond to new issues. “It buys you some flexibility.”

“You can do more of what you need to do quite simply. You can advertise more, you can call more, you can do more profiling of voters,” said Powers.

But no matter what, once the writ is dropped, all parties are bound by election spending limits. This year, the limit is expected to be around $25 million, though it depends on when the election is called and how long the campaign ends up being.

READ MORE: Fact file – Federal campaign periods and spending limits

And parties tend to spend as close to the limit as they can. In the 2011 election, that was about $21 million.

“You don’t want to be that person the day after the election that’s sitting on two million dollars and realizing that you’ve lost opposition status by so many seats or you could have become instead of a minority government a majority government,” said Greg MacEachern, vice-president at Environics Communications and a former Liberal strategist.

Funding a campaign, even knowing that the parties are spending a lot of the money on advertising and data collection isn’t a bad thing though, said Jansen. “It’s also a way of participating in politics. They’re representing issues that you care about. Yes, you’re partly funding this whole apparatus of marketing and information tracking, but parties also do carry ideas and things that you care about.”

“So yes, if you are really concerned about the cost of keeping your kids in activities, well the Conservatives are giving you a tax break. And if that’s important to you, well an important freedom in our democracy is we can use the resources we have to try to influence election outcomes within reasonable limits.”

Infographic by Leo Kavanagh and Leslie Young, Global News. Amounts derived by determining the percentage of total party expenses for each category, based on expenses by the Liberal, NDP and Conservative national campaigns in the 2011 general election as reported to Elections Canada. The percentages for each party by category were then averaged.

© 2015 Shaw Media

Report an error


Want to discuss? Please read our Commenting Policy first.