History Slam Episode 148: Why Political Leaders Matter

By Sean Graham

As an undergraduate student, I had an idea for a paper in my fourth year seminar on Canadian history to write about the 1930 federal election. It was a campaign that I was intrigued by – you had an economic collapse, a new leader of the Conservative Party, and a Prime Minister who would come back five years later. The more I read about the election, trends emerged that I had not expected and the paper turned into an analysis that went beyond politics.

A similar thing happened when I started to deal with the 1935 federal election during my MA research on the history of Canadian radio. In this case, you had the same two leaders as 1930, but a very different economic outlook and, more importantly, an unrecognizable media landscape. While radio played a role in 1930, its use was a major issue during the 1935 campaign and a significant factor in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s desire to re-organize the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission following his government’s return to power.

What was remarkable in looking at these campaigns, though, was that the role of the leaders, over the course of 5 years, was different. The two individuals were the same, but the way they engaged the Canadian people – and the way Canadians felt about them – had drastically changed.

In our federal elections, the vast majority of the population does not cast a ballot for a leader of a political party. Despite this, people have a tendency to vote for the candidate representing the party of their preferred leader. At the same time, there is a saying that all politics are local. As I result, when I’ve written about the 1930 and 1935 elections, I’ve wondered how to analyze this potential paradox.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Amanda Bittner of Memorial University about the significance of political leaders. We talk about how polling data is used, partisan voting patterns, and the role of leaders in swaying voters. We also discuss policies v. personalities, the significance of branding leaders, and the challenges of attracting people to politics.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor at Activehistory.ca

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