Brains and beauty
March 25, 2012 1 Comment
Pardon the quippy title, but at least I have your attention now.
In political terms, this election is easy to describe: the natural governing party, after a period of abnormally right-wing behaviour, has returned to its centrist roots and is being opposed by a splinter faction of itself that is angry about the abnormally right-wing behaviour not being more permanent.
However, politics is a foreign thing to most people (and ideological alignments even moreso), so, to reduce this election to a single sentence in everyman terms, one could say this election is about the pretty and well-spoken lady who is trying to defeat the other lady, who is super-smart but kind of grouchy.
The simple reality is that when a leader is pushed out, the new leader is usually selected on the basis of correcting a flaw of the previous leader. Ed Stelmach’s biggest flaw was that he was perceived to be nice-but-dumb. Alison Redford is pretty much the exact opposite, being perceived as smart-but-mean. Note that the key word in all of this is ‘perception’, as I know from my time in politics that Stelmach is smarter than he got credit for, and I know from sitting beside her at a dinner event that Redford is actually quite personable. However, perception is reality in politics, and, if you see the interactions between Redford and the press, or, better yet, if you watch Question Period, you will understand why I say Redford has the image of being smart-but-mean.
Smith, on the other hand, is more known for being articulate and telegenic. She is also intelligent (people forget that she has TWO university degrees), though I have noticed that appraisals of her intelligence tend to vary depending on political allegiance, whereas Redford is universally acknowledged to be smart. As a politician, Smith is one of the best in Alberta. While she is always ‘on’, she is also always relaxed, and her approach tends to be to kill people with kindness. She often jokes with the media, and even when she indulges in some stereotypical right-wing rage, she will find a way to crack a joke and smile at the end of it. This can be seen in her use of sarcasm-laced rhetorical questions that she uses to bridge between her criticisms of the government and exposition of her own ideas.
Redford is simply an intellectual juggernaut, who displays little patience for dumb questions, factual errors and feeble minds. If Question Period is nuclear war, she maintains solid second strike capability. The opposition happily launches a first strike only to be faced with overwhelming retaliatory force. For political nerds who watch Question Period like a sports game, one can see the smack-down coming like a big hit being set up in hockey: an opposition member fumbles delivery of a question, Redford contemptuously peers out over the top of her glasses, then she stands up and delivers the hit in one of two ways: 1) “You call THAT a question??” or 2) “How DARE you?!” Her style choices of thick-framed glasses and boxy power suits give further credence to her take-no-prisoners approach.
In terms of a mass media strategy, the PCs will have to either soften Redford or make Smith seem like a reptilian-kitten-eater. If their “Danielle Smith wants drunk drivers to kill couples on their date night” ad is any indication, I think they think the latter is easier than the former. Conversely, the Wildrose are trying to preserve Smith’s ‘congeniality advantage’ over Redford, as evidenced by their “everyone says Alison Redford is terrible” ad that contrasts negative evaluations and unflattering pictures of Redford against videos of a happy and cheery Smith. Even more interesting than ads and press conferences will be the the debates, where the leaders will get a chance to interact with each other. Smith, when on the defensive, can get visibly nervous and fidgety, whereas Redford just gets angry; while neither are good, I think anger leaves a more permanent impression.
Of course, all of this is just one person’s opinion, and polling could indicate differently. Moreover, even if my assessment is correct, a lot can and will change over the course of the campaign. Smith may have a likability advantage over Redford, but that is one of the few advantages that the Wildrose have over the PCs, and one that could be lost in an air war that the Wildrose will have difficulty competing in against the government.
Finally, I want to be clear that I am not making any normative judgement about the importance of image in politics. That is a debate I stay away from. Regardless of what one may think about the worthiness of image as a criterion in determining how one votes, the reality is that it is quite important. Moreover, I am also not saying, as one MLA famously did, that women should only smile. I would just as easily make the same comments about the image dynamics of two male politicians, like the affable, but gaffe-prone John Tory and Dalton McGuinty, who has been described as wooden.