Hindered by weak fundraising and a depleted war chest, New Brunswick Liberals under leader Kevin Vickers could afford to run only a stripped down election campaign in 2020 that included no polling, a skeletal paid staff and limited money for advertising, according to new party financial statements filed with Elections New Brunswick.
Michael Camp, an associate journalism professor and political commentator at St. Thomas University, said Liberal money troubles in 2020 helps explain some of why the party struggled to appeal to voters.
"Next to votes, money is everything," said Camp.
"You need money not just for office salaries but to conduct research, to poll, to get a sense of what the electorate is thinking so you know how to pitch to them during an election campaign. If you don't have the money for that kind of research you're flying blind."
Liberals won just 17 of 49 seats in the September 2020 election and watched their share of the popular vote sink to 34.2 per cent as Progressive Conservatives under leader Blaine Higgs won a majority government.
Results for Liberals were especially poor in southern New Brunswick where their candidates finished third or worse in 15 anglophone ridings.
Records now show the party was hampered by money troubles the entire time.
Liberals spent just $897,450 in 2020 on election and operational expenses, a fraction of the $2.15 million they poured into the effort to defeat Higgs in the 2018 election year.
The 2018 campaign ate up most of the party's money and so to accommodate a budget reduction for the Vickers campaign Liberal advertising expenses of $737,000 in 2018 were cut nearly in half.
In addition, money to pay people working on the campaign was reduced 70 per cent to $40,000 and $261,000 the party spent on research and polling in 2018 was eliminated entirely.
Greg Byrne is interim executive director of the New Brunswick Liberal Party and in an email said questions about party finances are best answered by president Brian Murphy, but he was not immediately available Wednesday.
According to Camp the lack of money, especially for pre-election research and polling was an obvious problem.
"What people say at the doorsteps to the candidates matter but you need that before the campaign stage. You need to know what the trigger issues are and you need to confirm what people are really concerned about," he said.
"As underfunded as they were in the last campaign, it showed. They didn't have focus. They didn't have an issue."
The Liberal election budget was tight not only because of how much money was spent in 2018, but because fundraising for the party has also become a struggle.
Strict contribution rules passed by the New Brunswick Legislature in 2017 has limited donations to all parties but has had its largest impact on Liberals.
Corporate and union political donations are now banned in the province and the limit on individual donations was cut in half to $3,000 per year.
Liberals, who raised $1.7 million in the 2010 election year and $1.4 million in 2014, with over 50 per cent of that supplied by companies, has not reached $1 million in donations since the rule changes.
In 2020 figures show the party raised just $629,000 to support the Vickers campaign, the least amount for it in an election year since records became public in 1982.
"If you've got money, you've got an advantage," said Camp. "It doesn't mean you can't win without it. It's just a lot easier to win with it."
Records show Progressive Conservatives also suffered a fundraising decline from weary donors in 2020 but less pronounced than Liberals. PCs managed to raise $1 million to help fund $1.3 million in election year spending, the same budget they had in 2018.