A leading U.S. organization in the field of increasing the number and effectiveness of conservative public policy leaders brought its expertise north of the border recently as part of the annual convention of Ontario’s Family Coalition Party.

The Leadership Institute held a Grassroots Campaign School that was co-sponsored by the FCP and the Christian Coalition International Canada in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga on April 13. Presented by institute president Morton Blackwell, with assistants Matt Robbins and Robert Arnakis, the day-long session focused especially on the various aspects of running a successful political campaign.

The Arlington, Va.-based institute was founded by Blackwell in 1979 and has trained more than 55,000 Americans, including Ralph Reed and two Miss Americas, for effective leadership in the public policy process. It currently boasts a staff of 58 with an annual budget of $12.7 million (US) and offers 36 different training programs, an intern program, an employment placement service and a broadcast journalism placement service to young conservatives.

Late U.S. president Ronald Reagan once commended the institute for “paving the way for a new generation of conservative leadership.” Its website is at www.leadershipinstitute.org.

Blackwell has a long history on the U.S. political scene. In earlier years, he was a college Republican state chairman and a Young Republican state chairman in Louisiana, served on the Young Republican National Committee for more than a dozen years and worked as executive director of the College Republican National Committee. He is a member of the Virginia Republican state central committee and was first elected in 1988 as Virginia’s Republican national committeeman, a post he still holds. In 2004, he was elected to the executive committee of the RNC.
Blackwell has trained probably more political activists than any other U.S. conservative. In 1980, he organized and oversaw the national youth effort for Ronald Reagan. He then served as special assistant to the president on Reagan’s White House Staff from 1981 to 1984.

In Mississauga, Blackwell and his team spoke on topics including: the real nature of politics and elections; developing a strategy and message; campaign structure and organization; building coalitions; financing; and handling negative information.

Blackwell opened by smashing a key political myth: that being right is sufficient to win a campaign. “The real world doesn’t work that way,” he said. “The winner … is determined by the number and effectiveness of activists on the respective sides.”

And it is “political technology” (communications and organization) that determines the number and effectiveness of activists, he said, adding that this knowledge creates a “moral obligation to study how to win.”

Robert Arnakis, in describing how to develop a campaign strategy and a message, cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s concise formula – be sincere, be brief, be seated. Since the average U.S. citizen spends a scant seven minutes a week talking about politics, he said, it is disadvantageous to plot out a sophisticated message. Instead, he recommended a candidate personalize, humanize and dramatize his points.

“Develop an overarching theme, plus sub-messages directed at specific groups,” he counselled. Everything should be simple, positive and black-and-white in relation to opponents’ positions. “Persuade through reason; motivate through emotion,” he advised, noting that human beings are essentially creatures of emotion, not logic.

Other points Arnakis made for candidates to consider: create a big contrast with your opponents; be bold and dramatic; use moral outrage where necessary, as it is the most powerful motivating force in politics; make effective use of visuals; identify strengths and weaknesses; watch your language; recognize and address your vulnerabilities and attack points.

In a separate session on building coalitions, Arnakis emphasized that factions dominate politics, so it is essential to identify supportive groups and bring them into the fold. This has the effect of demonstrating that a candidate’s platform is in keeping with the broad public interest. A candidate should also attempt to neutralize potentially hostile groups.

Blackwell, in the session on financing and fundraising, stressed “there’s a lot of money out there!” He frequently pointed to the success of his own organization as a fiscal model that can be duplicated by others and noted that more money than ever is coming in to conservative organizations.

The day closed out with a lengthy session by Blackwell on how a candidate can best address negative information about him or herself and how to best exploit it about opponents. The course of action in each instance is dependent on the specific circumstances; however, two key points to keep in mind are “frame the issue” (bring the negative information out before an opponent does) and plan responses to negative information beforehand.