The importance of likeability in the NDP leadership race
Dec 18, 2011

The importance of likeability in the NDP leadership race

If there is anything that the last decade in Canadian politics has proven, it is that Canadians want a strong leader that can connect and be liked by the people. The Liberal party nominated twice in a row a leader which had significantly problems with likeability and resulted in back to back precipitous declines in support for that party. In contrast, with Jack Layton as the leader of the NDP, he regularly enjoyed higher favorability ratings than his party and drove the party to its enormous success in the May 2011 election.

As the NDP now, and the Liberals next year, set about choosing their new leader, they are thus faced with an all important litmus test: are they going to be likable leaders who can connect with Canadians? Even after the inevitable well funded Conservative smear campaigns that so effectively hurt Ignatieff?

I have long decried the focus on personality, not policies, in Canadian politics. I wish it was different; I wish we could sit down and have an honest, informed, and intellectual discussion about what policies are best for Canadians. For the most part, on this blog, I will strive to turn the conversation into such discussions. However, I am forced to acknowledge the realpolitik of the dominating importance of choosing a leader the fickle Canadian public can really rally behind if the NDP hopes to form a government in four years. And that means likeability and electability.

Thus far in the NDP leadership contest, the candidates have remained fairly homogeneous in their claims to core NDP values and the set of policies meant to implement it (outside of Nathan Cullen's plan for a quasi merger with the Liberals). When there is a major schism in direction among the candidates, when different sets of values or major policy differences are at play, then it is important to make judgements on these differences. When the field is more homogenized, the importance of the value/policy side of things is relatively less compared to the tactical considerations of electability and the like.

At the same time, the NDP remains diametrically opposed to the incumbent Conservatives. As in, the difference between the NDP candidates is vanishingly small compared to the difference between the NDP as an aggregate and the Conservatives as an aggregate. This redoubles the importance, from the NDP side, of emphasizing electability over the smaller minutiae of policy differences.

Likeability is a necessary but not sufficient condition. If a candidate does not have this - indeed, if they are not close to the best in this - it is going to put a significant dent in the ability of the NDP to win. However, after that we can turn to the question of values, policy, and who will put the NDP  in a direction that not only allows them to win, but let's them win with the best set of policies. If anyone has an argument that a particular candidate will transform the NDP into values and policies that are optimal, then I can probably respect (and want to hear about!) such an argument. I would merely ask that the factor of electability be considered as well and that we are willing to invalidate candidates who do not meet this litmus test.

The policies and values pushed by the leader of a party makes a big difference; the leader has the biggest microphone, if you will. Jack Layton, for instance, truly pushed his viewpoints and perspectives into the broader party and movement. However, parties exist (and should exist) as an exchange of ideas whereby the bottom up work of party members, elected or otherwise, contribute to which policies the top pushes the most. As such, one can get an electable leader and afterward turn to their issue, as a party, of pushing the best policies.

Given the above, the question now turns to determining who of the currently declared candidates actually is the most likable and is most likely to be elected. I will share my thoughts on this in a subsequent post, but for now I will just leave you to consider (and comment below!) on which of the candidates you think best passes this test. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Anonymous said...

Thought provoking post, but the more I think, the more I disagree.

How important is "likability"? It's certainly not without importance and quite frankly I'd rather my leader had it than not, but I think it's often overestimated as a determining factor in electoral success.

Exhibit 1: Stephen Harper. Can anyone point from a poll in the 2006, 2008 or 2011 elections that showed Harper leading in likability? No? didn't think so. The adjectives that average Canadians are most likely to associate with Harper are more commonly associated with unlikability (eg, arrogant, contemptuous). He has consistently scored well on adjectives of a more pragmatic nature though (eg. intelligent, competent). In fact, even the anemically charismatic Stephan Dion rated higher than Harper on likability surveys - not so much in "the only poll that matters", the first of unlikable Harper's three (3) election wins.

Exhibit 2: In the last Ontario provincial election Andrea Horwath's was consistently acknowledged to be the most likable of the candidates. In fact, on the much loved (by pundits)"Who would you rather have a beer with?" question, Andrea was more than twice as popular as either McGuinty or Hudak. While the NDP improved by 7 seats and nearly 6% of popular vote, many (and I am one) perceive this as a sizable underperformance given McGuinty's massive vulnerability and Hudak's terrible campaign.The ONDP's (under)performance owed more to a lousy platform (removing tax from fossil fuel consumption...seriously...) than to the charisma or lack thereof of the leader.

Exhibit 3: Jack Layton. Jack was the epitome of likable (although it should be remembered that opinions were much more mixed when he first arrived in Ottawa). The received wisdom is that it was Jack's likability that was responsible for the Orange Wave and the NDP's historic showing. The NDP ran a great campaign, and certainly Jack himself was at the centre of it, but Jack led the party through 4 elections from 2004-2011. The greatest jump in the party's performance, by far, was between 2008 and 2011 - did Jack get a whole lot more likable in those three years? It would appear not. Jack's likability ratings in this 2011 poll are virtually identical to his 2008 scores:
What did change was a massive realignment in QC politics and a Liberal implosion.

Does "likability" matter? I'd say yes, all things being equal, it's much better to be likable than not. certainly it will never hurt you. Can someone who's not likable win elections? Harper's back-to-back-to-back victories suggest that the answer is yes, if that negative personal image is balanced by perceived strengths related to competence and management.

Finally, I would also suggest that significant substantive differences exist between the candidates and will continue to emerge as the campaign goes on. Certainly I agree with you that none of the policy cleavages will be seismic (ie. no one will come forward with a flat tax or public sector austerity program), but broad areas of general agreement can mask significant differences in the details. And the devil, as they say, is in the details.

bazie said...

Thanks for your comments.

So, I debated when writing this if "likeability" was the right word, and perhaps it isn't. I want to be able to include things like intelligent and competent and not just the classic "who would you want to have a beer with". As in, all the character traits and personality traits exuded by the polititian that is separate from their actual policy proposals. And I maintain that the former matters quite a bit more - to the average person, perhaps not us political junkies - than the latter.

Heck, I doubt if most people can even list, say, five policy issues they actually like about most people they vote for but will be able to say something like "I can trust Harper, he is steady and smart" or "I don't know if Ignatieff cares about Canada cause he is a foreigner"

Regarding your examples, I guess this indicates perhaps how subjective this is. For instance, I think part of the reason Harper didn't get a majority in 2008 was because of likeabilility challenges and in the next few years he worked really really hard to construct an image of being calm and steady and it worked well when he won a majority. Or with Layton, the Bloc's seppuku may not have ended up in the NDP favor were it not for Layton's very high favorability ratings in Quebec, including his dominance of French.

Anyways, I think we can probably agree that these personality issues (perhaps I will use that term and not likeability in the future) are at least a relevant factor and the question is how powerful it is compared to other factors. Personally, I simply don't have much confidence in the average voter to be informed in the policy details and see, time and time again, most political conversations pushed to platitudinous discussions over the personalities of the leaders,

I am glad to see another person also thinking the ONDP's tax relief on fossil fuels as a silly platform more or less gifting the green support to the liberals:D

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