Rocco Rossi on bringing (heavily discounted) Obama support numbers to Canada’s Liberals

Rocco Rossi is one of the key figures in the new Michael Ignatieff coterie that’s now running the Liberal Party of Canada, a crew many rank-and-file Liberals are getting to know for the first time at this week’s party convention in Vancouver. (We profiled him Maclean’s early this year, soon after Ignatieff recruited him to be the party’s new national director.)

Tall, voluble, and gleaming of pate and tooth, Rossi is impossible to miss in the corridors at the Vancouver Convention Centre. I buttonholed him outside a policy session earlier today to ask about his priorities as the party’s national director, which focus on upgrading Liberal software for tracking supporters and voters, and ramping up fund raising. After the jump, an edited transcript.

Q. There’s a lot of buzz here surrounding the database management system you’ve recently bought, from the folks behind Barack Obama’s online grassroots organization. Is training party activists on the new software is really the key activity at this convention?
A. Software is only as good as the consistency and credibility of the data that goes into it. The better trained our people are, the more consistently the tool is used, the more powerful it will be for us. So we’re taking advantage of this convention.

How many of the 2,000 of so Liberals here will get a training session?
A. All of the delegates if they want to make time over these several days. And we’ll be following up with train-the-trainer sessions across the country to make sure that it goes down into all 308 ridings.

Q. It’s not just a matter of training, though, is it? You need to patiently build up a reservoir of information about potential members, donors, and voters.
A. Absolutely. This just gives us the architecture. Then you need the depth of the data to make it more and more useful. You can load it with stock stuff and historical data that we have. But this is really going to be powerful as we canvass, as we have more correspondence with members of the community. That will then go into the database so we’ll be able to customize our conversations with people.

Q. Some of those conversations will be about fund raising. Where are you in terms of improving the party’s previously dismal capacity to tap donors?
A. The reality is that year over year, first quarter 2009 we raised over double what we raised in 2008—in 2008, roughly $850,000, in 2009, $1.8 million. That’s great news. But in first quarter the Conservatives raised $4.3 million, down from $4.9 million. The NDP collapsed from $1.1 million to $590,000.

So we’re the only major party growing our base and growing by a significant percentage. But we’re still behind the Conservatives. Look, the Conservatives spent over a decade to build a very formidable machine, and that machine is still there. We know we’re coming from behind.

Q. Beyond the new software, what can you do to catch up?
A. We’ve launched a new program called ‘The Power of One.’ It’s really simple. If every member goes out and recruits just one more member, we double the size of the organization overnight. We have roughly 55,000 members. My goal is to get to over 200,000 members, which involves the power of one working twice.

Q. Why 200,000—just a nice round number?
A. I like it for a couple of reasons. Look at what Barack Obama did in the U.S. By the end of the primaries he developed a list of 13 million email addresses, five million volunteers, and four million donors. If you do a 1 in 10 ratio, the population of Canada to the U.S., that would be 1.3 million emails, 500,000 volunteers and 400,000 donors.

But I discount that because Obama is a phenomenon, a world historical figure. So let’s take 50 per cent of that: 250,000 members and 200,000 donors. Now, Obama’s donors averaged out at $150. Let’s go to $100: 200,000 donors at $100 a year is $20 million and that’s mission accomplished!

Q. Okay, I’m following along. What’s the significance of $20 million?
A. It’s mission accomplished in terms of what the Conservatives are doing, which is to fund a permanent campaign. Last year they raised $21 million. We raised $6 million. You let that situation continue and democracy is at risk. No matter how good your ideas, no matter how good your leader, you won’t be able to present your message on an equal footing.