Oct. 28, 2005

The politics of popularity:

Why Tony Blair cost Labour votes, and why Jack Layton won’t be prime minister

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Robert Andersen, who holds the Senator William McMaster Chair in Political Sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, has found that leaders' images are the most important variable in determining a voter’s decision.

Hamilton, ON - David Cameron, the youthful, red-hot leadership hopeful of Britain's Conservative Party, would be wise to heed the lesson learned by his party from this past summer's election campaign: Just because the incumbent loses popularity does not guarantee victory for the opposition. Image trumps substance as the leading criteria people use to determine where to cast their votes.

"Even when you account for everything else that can influence voting decisions-a voter's values, election-specific issues, assessment of the government's record, social background, partisanship-leaders are still very important. In fact they're the most important variable in determining a voter's decision," explains Robert Andersen who holds the Senator William McMaster Chair in Political Sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Andersen and co-researcher Geoffrey Evans of Oxford University used data from public opinion polls and the 2005 British Election Study to determine factors that influenced the electorate's voting preferences. The article is published in Parliamentary Affairs.

"Blair's decline in popularity probably cost the Labour Party more votes than any other issue in this election. Despite Howard's modest gain in popularity, it was not enough to endanger Labour's control of Westminster," says Andersen.

British voting behaviour is not dissimilar to what happens on this side of the Atlantic. In Canada a party leader's image is the most important criteria in an election. However, a charismatic leader may not improve the New Democrat Party's fortunes, Andersen found.

"It is likely that the NDP will continue to receive less support simply because they are not seen as likely winners of the election. One could speculate that this is why so many people took a relatively benign view of Jack Layton in the last election - he was not a serious contender," Andersen concludes. "Likewise, although (former NDP leader) Ed Broadbent was well-liked, he could not significantly improve the party's performance. It all comes down to voters asking themselves, which of these people would make the best prime minister"

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