We are in the midst of the most closely contested (and lengthy) political campaign our country has seen in decades. The question every voter asks about any politician is: "Are they for real?" Many judge solely on communication style and how they appear physically versus their beliefs on complex issues or even track record.
The most successful candidates are consistent not only in their policy statements but in their ability to earn the trust of voters.
Each candidate's personal communication style is unique (based on what I've read and seen in the media) and affects their campaigning differently.
Harper adapts his communications style to the occasion. Often known for his formal, wooden approach, he is capable of winning over an audience in one instance and alienating them in the next. For example, his comments on the occasion of Peter MacKay's resignation were warm, funny and heartfelt. On the flipside, he appears to find it difficult to feign warmth or affection in many other situations, and his smile is not an easy or open one.
As Andrew McDougall, Harper's former director of communications noted, Harper will never rival Bill Clinton as a warm, new-best friend type of person, nor the late Jack Layton. At 56, Harper will continue to be himself and his communications style won't change.
Harper's recent interview with CBC's Peter Mansbridge came in the midst of revelations about the conduct of two Conservative candidates who were subsequently dismissed. He appeared nervous (stiff body language and excessive water sipping) and quick to respond to Mansbridge, sometimes with irritation, versus having a conversation.
Harper was more concise than usual when asked why he should be re-elected. Rather than point to tangible accomplishments as a leader, he replied, "I know who I am. Canadians know me. I'm not perfect, but you know, I'm dedicated to my country, I love my country."
As he matures, Justin Trudeau relies less and less on his late father's legacy. In fact, he tries to distance himself from Pierre Trudeau's style with a shirt-sleeves approach to making life easier for the middle class at the expense of big business.
This alongside lifting babies high into the air and balancing them to the delight of the media and young parents -- his version of the classic baby kissing -- portrays him as a true family person with a sense of confidence and fun. And he seldom misses a chance to be photographed with his family in imaginative and even odd settings.
In his interview with Peter Mansbridge, he appeared in a tie and shirt sleeves to reinforce his "get it done" approach to fix what he termed Harper's "10 years of failings." He conveyed a take no prisoners attitude by saying he would not consider a coalition government with the Conservatives or NDP -- another firm and self-assured gesture.
He listened intently to Mansbridge's questions and unlike Harper, did not jump in or correct him. He was wise to show respect to arguably the most powerful political commentator in the country, which demonstrated his seriousness and growing maturity. He looked relaxed and maintained eye contact with his interviewer -- another example of his confidence without being arrogant.
The most successful leaders demonstrate their credibility, versus remaining on the defensive. One of Tom Mulcair's finest moments came in November 2013 in the House of Commons as the Mike Duffy scandal was taking off. He peppered Stephen Harper with short questions. We saw in Mulcair as a seeker of truth who went beyond politics to the core of what was bugging voters and the media -- how much did the prime minister know that he was not revealing? He demonstrated leadership and steely focus, and thus boosted his and his party's credibility.
Of the four candidates, Mulcair displays the greatest ease in interviews and sense of humour. He can draw the line between humour and an earnest statement of his mission, which makes him appear accessible, confident and trustworthy. In response to Mansbridge's request for a simple "yes" or "no" answer, Mulcair replied, "You're asking a lot of a politician to give a one-word answer."
Mulcair is comfortable in his role as a family person and grandfather, and makes no attempt to compete with other candidates in the attire arena, conveying a well-groomed, down-to-earth appeal. This tells voters he is more concerned about issues than his tie selection.
It's hard to say which factor has greater influence over the electorate. Personal gaffes (such as Elizabeth May's surprising profanity at the press gallery dinner in May) rocket to prominence and can remain in the public's memory for some time. On the other hand, May's performance during the MacLean's National Leaders' Debate in Toronto in August earned her kudos for her concise questioning of Harper and Mulcair regarding their respective policies and track records.
In her interview with Peter Mansbridge, she communicated focus and resolve. For example, she said she would not support Stephen Harper's efforts to form a minority government and instead attempt to mediate a coalition government between the opposition parties to ensure the Conservatives don't return to power.
She communicates a collaborative approach with statements like, "We govern better when we govern together." Of all the leaders, she is most likely to offer a hearty laugh, which makes her appear more human than overly scripted. Her often blunt communications style is essential when advocating controversial measures, such as raising the corporate tax rate to 19 per cent.
Regardless of the political platforms put forward, elections can be won, and politicians made, based on how well they communicate and connect with the public.
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