Departure of Tory strategist leaves 'massive hole'
Published Thursday, February 5, 2009 6:53PM EST
OTTAWA - He was considered so critical to Stephen Harper's success that mere chatter about a possible election once forced him to cut short his honeymoon -- leaving his new bride alone in Japan.
Now Patrick Muttart is leaving Canadian politics.
The rarely seen, never-heard political strategist who left his stamp on the TV ads the Tories ran, the tax cuts they introduced, the slogans they uttered, and on their strategy for defending Canada's Arctic, has informed colleagues of his exit.
His objectives were consistent: win over the middle class, use consistent messages and images to create a brand, and make the Conservatives the party of Canadian patriotism.
Publicly, his colleagues were loath to assess the impact of his departure. Privately, they said his influence was incalculable.
"This leaves a massive hole," said one government official.
"He taught the conservative movement in Canada how to win elections again."
Friends expect that Muttart and his American wife may leave for the United States, a place with myriad opportunities for a conservative political operative with a winning track record.
Harper hired him after the crushing election loss of 2004.
The young ad executive had played a junior role in the Tory war room during that year's campaign, and he expressed a desire to leave his Toronto employer for a full-time job in politics.
Staffers had been asked for their views on what went wrong with the campaign, and Muttart impressed his superiors with an extremely critical post-mortem.
Muttart arrived with an encyclopedic knowledge of the successful election strategies of conservatives around the world from Margaret Thatcher to Richard Nixon.
During the new Conservative party's 2005 founding convention, party stalwart Tom Flanagan and Muttart went out for supper with the national director of then-Australian prime minister John Howard's Liberal party.
Muttart arrived at that Montreal dinner with intimate knowledge of how Australian conservatives had cobbled together their string of electoral successes. It was something of a hobby for him.
"He'd already been to Australia," said Flanagan, Harper's onetime chief of staff. "He took time off work (from his marketing job) to go to Australia (and study its politics)."
The lessons learned in Oceania played a central role in the Conservatives' surprise campaign victory in 2006.
Instead of releasing a platform in one shot they dribbled it out in daily 9 a.m. announcements. The strategy helped Harper dominate news headlines and keep the focus off the daily campaign controversies and attacks from incumbent Paul Martin.
After using detailed polling and marketing techniques to identify swing voters, Muttart came up with names and character types for the people the Tories needed to attract.
There was "Steve and Heather" -- a Protestant, business-owning, 40-something couple with three kids. "Eunice," a widow in her 70s. "Dougie," a single man who worked at Canadian Tire and mostly ignored politics.
Most of these character-types fell into the middle-class category of voter the Australian Liberals refer to as their "battlers."
Campaign promises were tailored to the battlers -- like the tax credit for tradesmen's tools, which might appeal to Dougie and his friends. Couples like Steve and Heather got a $500 fitness tax credit.
Then there were people like "Zoe," the granola-munching, downtown-dwelling, apartment-renting, 20-something woman. Being unlikely to ever vote Conservative, Zoe got nothing.
Muttart also overhauled the party's election ads. He pushed for extremely bland ads of Harper being asked questions by a fictional TV newscaster.
"The ads were artfully middle-brow," Flanagan wrote in his book, Harper's Team.
"Although many observers said they were hokey, they were well-conceived for the job they had to do -- to communicate the essence of our policy to middle-aged or older, family-oriented, middle-income people without high levels of formal education."
The Tories won -- and Muttart moved into the Prime Minister's Office as a senior strategist.
His influence on public policy is not considered unanimously positive.
Several Conservatives expressed regret Thursday at the multitude of tax policies that might have appealed to targeted voters, but also complicated the tax code and offered far less benefit than across-the-board cuts.
Muttart insisted on having Tories brand themselves as Canada's New Government -- until the slogan was so ubiquitous that Conservatives themselves rolled their eyes at it and bureaucrats chafed at having to stamp what amounted to a political logo on public-service documents.
He expressed frustration that in most countries, it was right-wing parties most identified with patriotism. But in Canada, the Liberals were associated with national symbols from the flag to medicare and the Charter of Rights.
So Muttart went about ensuring that Harper made as many speeches and announcements as possible in front of patriotic backdrops -- police officers, soldiers, veterans, and the Arctic.
In the last election campaign, Conservatives say Muttart was instrumental in helping the Tories catch up with the Liberals in support among female voters.
The prime minister used a key buzzword his strategists determined would appeal to women: he would "protect" them from the economic storm, he would "protect" communities from gangs.
The Tories ran an end-of-campaign ad in which a mother and daughter discussed how afraid they were of Liberal Stephane Dion's carbon tax.
"The Liberals were running ads that spoke to everyone," said one campaign official.
"His ads -- especially that ad -- didn't speak to men at all. It spoke to women who had families. His ads, when you watched them, even without listening to what they were saying, a large segment of the public would say, 'That person is kind of like me.' "
Flanagan said the marketing background and keen interest in politics gave Muttart a unique skill-set: the ability to run a focus group, design an ad, envision a good photo op, and tailor public policy to key voters.
He denies Muttart is irreplaceable. But he says the Tories had better find one other person -- or several more people -- with the same skills.
"What Patrick has been doing is indispensable to political success," Flanagan said.
"I don't see how the Conservative party could win, without somebody doing what Patrick has done."