Turning Tom Mulcair’s Beard Into a Furry Mascot Might Be an Election Winner

Beards are traditionally seen as an election loser, so we asked an expert about the NDP's beard-forward campaign.

|
Aug 20 2015, 7:37pm

Photo courtesy NDP

As the federal campaign enters its third week, all three major parties still have a fighting chance at forming office, either alone or via coalition. But in what is quickly turning into one of the most competitive races in recent memory, one thing stands out more than any: Tom Mulcair's got a beard. A chin curtain. A great, big, hairy face toque.

In a different line of work, it might seem a trivial detail. But as enduringly trendy as it is in the world at large, the beard—and facial hair more generally—still holds a negative connotation in Western politics, and is seen as one of the surest steps toward electoral failure.

In his seminal 2001 beard book One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair, author Allan Peterkin suggests that this is because the bearded look is still widely associated with hippies, dead-beats, and dictators, and adds that"the beard has been the kiss of death for Western politicians."

Ohio councilman Phil Van Treuren, a former political consultant and field director for the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign, put it more bluntly to VICE: "Generally speaking, if you have two identical candidates, the guy with the beard is gonna pull in a few less votes."

History would tend to agree. There hasn't been a bearded prime minister for 121 years, when Mackenzie Bowell took office—and he wasn't even elected, having been handed the role after Prime Minister John Thompson died unexpectedly. South of the border, the story is much the same: William Howard Taft was the last unshaven American president when he was elected just over 106 years ago. The few North American politicians who have managed to be elected to high office while sporting some sort of facial hair often do as Stephen McNeil did in 2008, shortly after being elected premier of Nova Scotia—shave, shave, shave.

A number of studies show that beardos are generally perceived negatively by voters. In one recent study, political scientists asked people to choose the likely political stances of similar-looking politicians, with and without chin whiskers. They found that a significant number of people felt that facial hair made candidates appear overly masculine, and that some groups of voters—particularly women and self-declared feminists—were more hesitant to vote for the candidate with facial hair. Rebekah Herrick explains, "Based on our research, if you want to go after women or the feminist vote, you'd be wise to shave the beard and 'stache."

Clearly, Mulcair is bucking this trend, and for some, the alarm bells have been ringing for a while now. Back in 2012, when he was still running for the leadership of the NDP, commentators assumed that his look would cast a shaggy shadow on his leadership chances. A year later, Ottawa-based media consultant Barry McLoughlin commented that if Mulcair was his client, he'd have recommended a shave, and added that even handsome, well-groomed facial follicles can create a (hairy) barrier between the voter and the candidate.

"People don't logically say, I won't vote for somebody who wears a beard. It's more of an instinctive, visceral, can't-quite-verbalize-it thing," McLoughlin said.

But far from heeding this advice, the NDP have positioned Mulcair's beard front and center of their campaign. On pins, on posters, and on placards, the beard has become a sort of furry mascot at the core of the party's broader promotional strategy. All of which prompts the question: what the hell are they thinking?

"Beard" a part of it, indeed. Photo courtesy NDP

In this crowded threeway race, even a slight miscalculation could have enormous costs. But as unconventional as it is risky, the beard may ultimately prove a critical part to the NDP's chances at success.

Here's why.

One of the most consistent criticisms of Mulcair concerns his bellicose, stern nature in debate period; when handed the floor in the House, he's about as gentle as a Rottweiler. It's a trait which could easily drive voters away.

But by making his beard a central part of their campaign, the NDP is re-appropriating the very thing that might otherwise be associated with his less desirable traits. Van Treuren explains: "He's using it to make himself more relatable, more fun. He's having fun with it, and he's using his facial hair as a unique part of his own personal brand. I think it's brilliant."

Highlighting the beard also gives the NDP a simplified means of playing up their underlying (albeit vaguely defined) promise of "change": While the Liberals struggle to articulate how, exactly, their policies would be much different from those of the Conservatives, the NDP's messaging has been effective at setting them apart from the rest of the pack. A recent Leger poll found that the NDP continue to be seen as the party which "most embodies change."

If a bit of scruff will help drive that point home, so be it.

The beardy playfulness should help Mulcair battle the younger, baby-faced Justin Trudeau for the change/urban lumberjack vote, especially since Trudeau's facial hair made him look like he should be swashbuckling off the Spanish Main in the 1700s.

Beyond that, the beard-forward strategy will have the effect of making Mulcair easier to remember, like an annoying jingle that reminds you of your hometown's used-car dealership.

"Anything that can make him seem more fun, less threatening, more trustworthy and genuine is going to help him with anyone who votes more emotionally," Van Treuren says.

Sure, there are those who will register Mulcair's beard as uncouth, and others who will see it as little more than a hiding place for the hammer and sickle with which he will dismantle the Canadian state and impose a thousand years of forced labour. But Mulcair has never lacked for confidence, and the hirsute look will at the very least endear him to some for being a symbol of authenticity and individualism.

Whatever the outcome, the beard clearly plays to the NDP's strengths, setting Mulcair as a leader willing to buck conformity before even getting into office.

Besides, if he shaves that beard he looks like this.

Photo via Facebook

Follow Tomas Borsa on Twitter.