How Nenshi beat the players at their own game

by jeremybarretto

Anna is a middle-aged hairstylist. In many ways, she is a typical Calgarian: she owns a small business in south Calgary — which seems to make you genetically a fiscal conservative — and is socially progressive. She is the type who would call 3-1-1 to tell the city “don’t waste my taxes and pick up my recycling.” She has a seldom-used Facebook account but gets most of her news from her friends, the Herald and TV. She is also my mom.

Many, many journalists have written about how Nenshi effectively used social media. Few have written about how Nenshi and his team also excelled at strategy and traditional politics. As a woman and small business owner, both Barb Higgins and Ric McIver could appeal to Anna. However, Naheed Nenshi not only won Anna’s vote, but also inspired her to campaign for him. I asked Anna why Nenshi won the election. Her responses are in italics below.



McIver & Higgins really believed they could just run on name recognition, they really didn’t need to talk about the issues as the less they said the better it would be for them after they won.

McIver adopted a traditional front-runner “stay the course” strategy. He was completely unprepared when the last poll showed a statistical tie.  I think that if McIver established his “experience” message earlier instead of running as a City Hall insider-outsider he could have won.

Higgins stuck to a “manage the message” strategy. I was shocked when Higgins, a television news anchor for 21 years, refused to debate on TV.  If Higgins used the debate to show herself as a consensus builder and speak directly to voters she might have had a shot.

Nenshi’s strategy was simple, “converse and engage”: 1. Have the most comprehensive and well-reasoned platform; 2. Use social media and outreach events to engage politically savvy volunteers; 3.  Use volunteers to engage thousands of voters through traditional politics.

Nenshi’s team executed the strategy flawlessly. By the end of the campaign, Anna was talking to her clients, friends and family about Nenshi. Higgins and McIver were relying on robo-calls to reach voters. This election was ultimately a three-way two front war. Two armies showed up late and poorly equipped.


[Nenshi] treated all the voters with the same respect, the young adults, the people in their 40’s & 50’s as well as seniors. He attended all the forums even when they were back-to-back, even when the top candidates didn’t show up.

Anna first met Naheed Nenshi at the Afrikadey festival on a Sunday in mid-August.  The festival had some buzz since K’naan was headlining shortly after he finished waving the flag at the World Cup in South Africa. However Afrikadey is by no means a major event on the “political circuit” like the Calgary Stampede. Nenshi was the only candidate we saw at the festival meeting voters and answering questions. During the rest of the summer the Nenshi team was at virtually all of the thirty or so forums and almost every public event.  

Higgins skipped about half of the forums and instead held private town halls where voters were supposed to come and meet her. McIver did not have a presence at many community events (Bow River Flow anyone). All of this culminated with Higgins and McIver’s refusal, or at best ambivalence, to a televised debate with Nenshi in the last week of the campaign. Nenshi worked harder to earn Anna’s vote. This resulted in Anna convincing many of her friends and family to support Nenshi.



Nenshi took the courageous stance and put everything on the line, and for that he earned our respect.  We the voters are not stupid we know he might not be able to deliver everything he talked about but just the fact that he wants to try, has our admiration, we have to give him the chance.

Nenshi’s “Better Ideas” platform was affectionately known during the campaign as “politics in full sentences”. This was surprisingly a revolutionary concept. I was actually supporting Kent Hehr early in the campaign but was convinced by Nenshi’s detailed transit platform. Nenshi did not receive much coverage from the mainstream media until late in the campaign. However, Anna learned about the platform through the forums, coffee parties and word of mouth.

When a Nenshi supporter spoke with a voter, they had an arsenal of information about the campaign. Supporters of other candidates had little more than talking points about “leadership” and “experience”.


The Candidate

We also like that he is extremely articulate and knowledgeable, that makes as feel proud to let him represent us.  When he speaks well, we feel we speak well

After the Calgary election result was covered by CNN, Time Magazine, the Atlantic and even press in Poland (translation: “Nenshi kidnapped the youth vote”), this speaks for itself.