Would a female NDP leader be an advantage?
Jan 25, 2012

Would a female NDP leader be an advantage?

 When Barack Obama became President, there was an enormous outpouring of emotion at the historic fact of electing the first black President. Had Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary instead, America would most likely have had its first female President which would have been similarly venerated. Regardless of who the nominee was, the Democrats were well positioned to win and certainly Obama had many factors contributing to his enormous popularity (at the time). However, one factor that contributed to his popularity (both for and against) was the fact that he was black which undoubtably changed the way some subset of the population voted.

The question is this: would a female NDP leader, all else being equal, provided a net boost, net harm, or make no difference over a male leader? I believe the effect of this is certainly constrained, but it is quite possible that it would make a small benefit in the order of a few percentage points. 

A female NDP leader would not be quite as historic as Obama's case in the US. Canada has had a female Prime Minister (Kim Campbell) before, but only briefly and not elected. The NDP specifically has had female leaders before such as Alexa McDonough before. Prominent Premiers accross different parties and provinces like Alison Redford and Christie Clark are female. 40% of NDP seats are held by females. So the perception of a glass ceiling for women is not quite as high in Canada as it is for blacks in the US. Nonetheless, it would still be historic and an excellent reflection of Canada's culture of gender equality and there will be some subset of the population that finds this an influencing factor in their electoral decision. 

The mechanism that this is going to be most influential on is by giving one more reason or excuse for past Liberal voters to come into the NDP camp. I suspect many would like the idea of being part of the first elected female Prime Minister of Canada, and particularly for those who don't have clear ideas on preferences between the parties, this could push them over the edge. 

Gaining support is not just about the binary ability to flip a small percentage of votes from Liberal to NDP due solely to gender. It is also about the increase in enthusiasm that people may feel for her, and the way this builds momentum and support much the way the enthusiasm for Barack Obama's historic candidacy helped gain support even if there were relatively few that voted for him exclusively because he was black and would not have otherwise. It is these soft factors that are probably most important in gender considerations. 

The black mark on society is that, unfortunately, there are still people who will not vote for someone because they are female. This is relatively rare. What is more common is people who - often unconsciously - are somewhat less likely to vote for a female or would be less enthusiastic about it as an aggregate. Certainly such people exist in all parties, but there are measurable statistical differences between them. 

Take the question of whether people think it would be a good thing for there to be more females in politics. Most, from all parties, think this is either a positive effect or has no effect with only a few (more among Conservatives) willing to tell a pollster they think it is a negative effect. However, people were significantly more likely to say it was a positive effect opposed to no effect if they were a member of the NDP or a member of the Liberals than a member of the Conservatives. I would submit that there would be a genuine advantage then for a female NDP leader in attracting the 56% of Liberals who think there would be a benefit of having more women in politics. 

Or take the issue of the balancing of priorities. In Canada, there is a very strong correspondence between how females in general rank various issues (Ethics, Economy, Social, Fiscal) and how NDP voters rank them. Females and NDP voters both rank social issues as the top priority at 41% and 42% respectively, for instance. Bring females into the NDP fold seems like a very natural fit and is perhaps best able to be done by a female leader. 

When given a specific case, it is hard to objectively say that a person's decision is because of race or gender. Most don't openly or even consciously acknowledge the influence that race or gender plays for them, doubly so if it is being used as a reason to not vote for somebody. However, social science has repeatedly showed that in large numbers there are aggregate differences in peoples behavior based on these kinds of factors and as we have seem, there are legitimate differences in male vs female responses to polling questions. 

All of this is good in general, but given how an NDP leadership contest is ongoing, the question must be more specifically targeted at the two female candidates: Peggy Nash and Niki Ashton. Ashton is at or near the bottom of the pack in terms of endorsements and polling numbers so we can discredit her chances of winning the nomination. Peggy Nash, however, is among the frontrunners (3rd in endorsements, 2nd in polling). The question is thus this: does the fact that Peggy Nash is female help or hurt her in terms of electability in the general election? Note that in terms of her chances of winning the nomination itself, how people perceive her chances in the general is crucial. 

I think this does, albeit only slightly, increase her chances. It provides a legitimate avenue for which to poach Liberal voters, particularly females, who think there should be more women in politics, who would like the idea of being part of a historic vote for female Prime Minister, and are statistically more receptive to the NDP's balancing of priorities which may be more easily identified with a female leader.  

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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Skinny Dipper said...

While Peggy Nash would be a good leader for the NDP, I would not give her an advantage for being a woman. Many of the candidates would make great leaders. I do worry when we start choosing people based on their gender, cultural background, or where they live. For every person who supports someone because of their background, there are others who will oppose for the same reason.

bazie said...

Indeed. While it is something of an interesting topic, I certainly don't think we should be choosing people based on considerations like this. At best, we are talking about a few percentage points differences and so a given two candidates would have to be almost identical on a measure of electability before it even became a factor. And most people - especially progressives - are and should be relatively blind to such things at least superficially.

What I find somewhat interesting about the topic is that for a very long portion of history, there was assumptions and barriers against women such that even if they did become politicians, it was very hard for them to succeed. And it was quite right for people to talk about these sort of institutionalized biases that made it more difficult for women to get elected. I don't know if my thesis is actually true, but if so it is actually quite a remarkable time that we have gotten to where history reverses and we might have a political situation where the advantage goes to the female candidates not the male one.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Sorry but, and I hate to say this, if the NDP chooses a female to head the party, they will never ever get anywhere near the popularity that they have achieved under Layton. Why? Because even women don't trust women. And for good reason. Unfortunately, only incompetent women (and men so don't hang me) seek out their nation or party's leadership. Kim Campbell? Maggie Thatcher? Heck, even in the US, they refused to nominate Hillary who is by far the most popular female politician right now. No NDP, please do yourselves a favour and don't do it. I know, it's sad to sound sexist, but it's the truth. The NDP support will collapse with a woman at the helm.

bazie said...

Right. So It is possible, in my mind, that you are right to an extent. Namely, that biases - from both men and women - may make a disadvantage. And it might be close to fifty fifty as skinny dipper suggests. I am not positive it is a slight advantage but I think it is. However, I think we can limit the extent to which your statement is true in the sense that it is certainly not so extreme as to be an absolute certainty of loss. 40% of NDP seats are women and absolutely a woman could win an election. It may give them a sight advantage or disadvantage, but it is not a trump.

The Iron Frau was decades ago and Clinton would have been the nominee and would have been President were it not for Obama's success. I dont think it was her being female that meant she lost.

Anonymous said...

I disagree bazie. If 40% of NDP seats are women, maybe just maybe that is the only real reason why there has never been a federal NDP government. Ask any women and they'll tell you. When it comes to elections, women as leaders is a negative to your party. You have viable points, but history shows otherwise. As an aside, had Hillary won the nomination in the US primaries, right now President McCain would be running for re-election. Not that it would make any difference. Political parties now are more hiding places for the elite to further separate the masses. All you have to do is read any blog to find that true. Party supporters regularly parrot talking points like they have some basis in reality. But I am getting sidetracked sorry. Thanks for the response though. It's nice to see an actual Canadian politics blog, instead of constant US ones.

bazie said...

Well I unfortunately delve into US politics as well;)

A couple of your points are objectively untrue. Firstly, I know many women who would not agree. Some might anne perhaps you ar righty that a majority would, but certainly not all and this is true more or less tautologically. Secondly, I highly doubt your claim about the counterfactual of Clinton winning. If you go back to comparison polls at the time, Clinton performed far ahead of generic republican in heads to heads polls...at times better than Obama did. Everything was set for a democratic win from the unpopular wars, to eight years of bush, etc etc. she would have won even if there was a strong anti-female vote out there as you suggest.

But yes your tangent is entirely correct

Anonymous said...

Rick Mercer decided to explain what is wrong with the NDP, and it isn't the female perspective... http://www.youtube.com/user/MercerReport#p/u/2/yqchxB_tjuE

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