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The Importance of Local Party Activity in
Understanding Canadian Politics: Winning from the
Ground Up in the 2015 Federal Election
Presidential Address to the Canadian Political Science
Association Calgary, 31 May 2016
WILLIAM CROSS Carleton University
In recent years, CPSA presidential addresses have brought attention to the
importance of various approaches and subfields of the discipline. For those
familiar with my work, it won’t come as a surprise that my presidential
address explores the role of political parties in Canadian politics, and in particular their place in the 338 constituencies that comprise the Canadian
polity. The argument here is that while the focus of much attention relating
to our politics has shifted to the parties’ national activities, both in the
Canadian and comparative contexts, many important questions can only
be fully considered by also studying the activities of parties in local communities across the country. As Carty (2002) observed in his presidential
address, the local life of parties forms a key part of our political landscape.
More than a century ago, the Frenchman André Seigfried visited
Canada and proved to be an astute observer of our politics. Among
Seigfried’s many penetrating observations was the importance of political
parties to Canadian democracy (1907). In the decades since many
Canadian political scientists have made similar observations regarding the
Acknowledgments: I am grateful for comments on an earlier draft from R. Kenneth
Carty, Scott Pruysers, Lisa Young and Brenda O’Neill. Scott Pruysers also played a
key role in assisting with data collection and Peter Loewen facilitated the survey of
party members. I also thank the national directors of the political parties who helped
facilitate the candidate survey and all those who took the time to complete one of the
Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique
49:4 (December / décembre 2016) 601–620
© 2016 Canadian Political Science Association (l’Association canadienne de science politique)
and/et la Société québécoise de science politique
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key role parties play in shaping both our electoral and legislative politics
and more broadly our political history.
It is not an exaggeration to say that our parties have been at the centre
of democratic life for most of our history. Indeed, the Canadian political
story is intimately intertwined with the story of our parties. When Carty
(1992) recounts the different historical periods of party organization it is
not by coincidence that these map neatly onto Smith’s classification
(1992) of styles of governance and national policy priorities, and
Johnston and colleagues’ identification (1992) of periods of electoral realignments. As Meisel (1963: 370) long ago observed, political parties
“are among the relatively few genuinely national forces in Canada,” and,
as Peter Aucoin noted, have long formed the foundation for Canadian
“party government” (Aucoin, 1985).
While Katz and Mair (1995) identify a trend towards interpenetration
of party and state in many European countries, in the form of the twentyfirst century cartel party, parties have long been intertwined with and
central to the maintenance of the Canadian federation. Smith (1992: 531)
refers to the nexus between party and government as “the heart of
Canadian politics.” And, as Carty and colleagues (2000: 14) observe,
“Canada, more than any other country, has been defined by its politicians,
the political parties and its patterns of party competition”; they conclude
that “it is clear that Canada remains a party country” (228).
When considering important questions relating to our politics it is
imperative to consider the role of parties and to acknowledge that they
are not unitary actors. There are different faces of the parties fulfilling different tasks, offering different democratic opportunities and influencing
varying aspects of public life. Comparative work by Katz and Mair
(1994), building on the work of Key (1964), highlights three different
faces of parties: in elected office, in central office and on the ground.
They observe that each has different tasks and objectives and that the
balance of influence among them differs both within and across party
systems. Carty (2002, 2004) has contextualized this characterization of
party organization to the Canadian case and, through his franchise metaphor, suggested a stratarchical model in which the different strata of the
party exercise authority over discrete competencies (Carty and Cross,
2006; but see also, Cross, 2016).
When I teach a graduate seminar in political parties, we begin with an
exercise in which students pretend they are sitting next to someone from
abroad on a plane who engages them in discussion about their research.
This conversation leads to the seatmate asking where she can find this
Liberal or Conservative party. Inevitably, students’ initial response is to
direct the visitor to Parliament Hill. After some pushing, a student will
suggest the traveller go to Albert Street in Ottawa where both parties
have their national headquarters. It almost never occurs that a student
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Abstract. Political parties have long been identified as critical players in Canadian democracy. In
this address I focus on the activities of parties at the constituency level arguing that this is crucial to
fully understanding many important questions in Canadian political science. By way of example,
using data relating to the 2015 federal election, I argue that examining the relative vitality of
local party associations in the period between election campaigns assists in a fuller understanding
of election outcomes and that examining local party nomination dynamics is key to understanding
the underrepresentation of women in the candidate pool and ultimately in the House of Commons.
Résumé. Les partis politiques sont depuis longtemps considérés les acteurs clés dans la
démocratie canadienne. Dans ce discours, je me concentre sur les activités des partis à l’échelon
de la circonscription en faisant valoir le caractère essentiel que cette analyse revêt pour comprendre
pleinement de nombreuses questions importantes en science politique canadienne. À titre d’exemple, en me fondant sur les données de l’élection fédérale de 2015, j’avance que l’examen de la
vitalité relative des associations locales des partis durant la période écoulée entre les campagnes
électorales aide à une meilleure compréhension de résultats de l’élection et que l’examen de la
dynamique des courses à l’investiture des partis à l’échelle locale est déterminante pour comprendre
la sous- représentation des femmes dans le bassin de candidatures et, en dernier ressort, à la
Chambre des communes.
suggests that the parties can be found in communities across the country, in
fact, in each of our 338 electoral constituencies in the form of electoral district associations (EDAs).
This is not surprising as the party leaders, parliamentarians, campaign
gurus, pollsters and the like dominate so much of our media attention.
Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Canadians interact with parties at the
community level. Many will never attend question period, may never
travel to Ottawa, will never attend a party conference or serve on a provincial or national party committee. Yet they are passionate supporters of their
favoured parties, engaging in activities that have profound implications for
our politics. To borrow the phrase coined by Gallagher and Marsh (1988),
this is the “secret garden” of our politics.
But it is not just journalists and pundits who focus on the national campaign, we academics are often equally guilty. Marland and Giasson’s ebook (2015) on the 2015 election with more than 60 contributions includes
two that are truly focused on the local campaign. This is consistent with
recent election studies. Here, while parties are identified as the crucial
players, the focus is primarily on explaining vote choice with an emphasis
on the national parties’ messages, their advertising and leaders’ effects, and
voter demographics (see, for example, Kanji et al., 2012; Gidengil et al.,
2012). Similarly, an emerging stream of literature on political marketing,
reflecting the centralizing tendencies of this phenomenon, largely focuses
on the national activities of parties and their personnel (Marland et al., 2012).
Of course, there are exceptions, perhaps most importantly the book
Politics is Local: National Politics at the Grassroots by Carty and Eagles
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(2005) and the work of scholars following in this tradition such as Sayers
(1999), Koop (2011) and Pruysers (2015). And, most recently, the promising Local Parliament Project of Loewen, Rubenson and Koop (2015). The
first comprehensive analysis of party life in the constituencies, however,
was not undertaken until Carty’s 1991 survey of party riding associations
and there is no denying that the scholarship on political parties, and electoral
politics generally, is heavily weighted in favour of emphasis at the national
and regional levels.
All of this may reflect an account of Canadian politics that says local
campaigns and party efforts really don’t matter which is reflective of much
of the comparative literature on parties. As Koop (2010: 894-95) notes
regarding the lack of sustained study of local party organizations in
Canada, “Despite the important role they play in the ridings, the only
attempts to understand them include anecdotal accounts (for example,
Thorburn, 1961) and a survey of constituency associations (Carty,
1991).” He goes on to explain this as follows: “For some time, scholars
have emphasized far-reaching changes to the structure and practice of partisan politics that appear to render local organizations and their members
redundant or even a ‘nuisance.’” Similarly, as Clark observes in the
European context, “some argue that local parties are largely irrelevant, particularly since party membership is falling across modern democracies,”
and that “implicit in both accounts is the idea that it is the party in office
at the national level that is the legitimate level of analysis” (2004: 36).
Writing about European parties, Katz and Mair suggest that we have
“entered a new phase in which parties become increasingly dominated
by, as well as most clearly epitomized by, the party in public office”
(2002: 122) and that “one obvious symptom of this change is, of course,
the sheer physical withering of the party on the ground” (126). Much has
been written about the widespread decline of party membership (Scarrow
and Gezgor, 2010; van Biezen and Poguntke, 2014; Whiteley, 2011) as
well as the perceived centralization and professionalization of party campaign efforts (Farrell, 2006; Panebianco, 1988) resulting in the Katz and
Mair conclusion regarding the increased relative importance of the central
Notwithstanding all of this, I suggest that many questions relating to
Canadian politics can only be fully understood when we include in our analyses consideration of local party life. To some extent this may be contextual as our single member plurality (SMP) electoral system dictates that
there are 338 mini-campaigns and elections happening concurrently and
that winning an election means succeeding in these discrete contests.
Candidates are chosen at the local level and members of Parliament
(MPs) are elected by appealing to voters in their geographically defined
constituencies. These dynamics likely differ in countries with different
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The Importance of Understanding Local Party Activity
institutional contexts such as weaker forms of party government or different
electoral systems (Cross, 2008).
One of the reasons for the lack of sustained, detailed analysis of local
party life, I suspect, is the difficulty in systematically gathering comprehensive information. While it is difficult, these obstacles can be overcome. As
part of a study of the 2015 election, this address draws upon a survey of
more than 300 candidates from the major parties, as well as more than
two hundred presidents of EDAs and more than 900 party members.
While the response rate varies by party and across surveys, all of the
major parties participated and no party is consistently underrepresented.1
For example, while Conservatives were relatively weak respondents in
the EDA survey, more of their candidates responded than did those from
the other parties and vice-versa for the Liberals. The patterns presented
here are consistent across data sources providing additional confidence
about the validity of the story told. These data, together with that available
from Elections Canada regarding the parties’ finances and nomination
contests, provide a rich array of information of party life on the ground
and a valuable resource for addressing issues that too often are considered
only at the national level.
The sub-title of this address is “Winning from the Ground Up.” By way
of example, my intention is to provide evidence of the importance of considering local party activity to a fuller understanding of two types of winning:
the first is the obvious winning the election; the second relates to the election of female MPs, winning in this sense means improving our democracy
by increasing the number of women in Parliament. It is not my objective to
fully explain either of these phenomena, but rather to illustrate how paying
attention to local party activity provides an additional dimension to our
Electoral Success
In addition to voters’ desire for change, popular explanations of the
Liberals’ victory in 2015 generally focus on their leader’s energetic performance, the perception among voters that he was a charismatic candidate, the
quality of the party’s television advertising, and, from a policy perspective,
outmaneuvering the New Democrats by embracing deficits and an infrastructure spending programme. While surely all of these things were important to the ultimate outcome, I suggest we can’t fully understand what
occurred without paying attention to party activity at the riding level.
In a post-mortem on the campaign, Conservative campaign chair, Jenni
Byrne (2016), argued that her party benefited greatly in its three electoral
victories from atrophy, neglect and discord among local Liberal party associations. She wrote that ten years ago, “in the Conservatives’ wake was left
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a weakened and divided Liberal party that had allowed local riding associations to atrophy and die on the vine, with no money and no organization.”
Byrne was clearly implying that there is an electoral cost to having moribund EDAs. What she did not go on to say is that this situation had
changed dramatically by 2015.
Let me begin here with an anecdote. About one year prior to the election, I accompanied my then 17-year-old daughter to an Equal Voice event
to which each of the parties sent a representative, including, for the Liberals,
the only non-MP Catherine McKenna, the party’s candidate in Ottawa
Centre. After the event, my daughter commented that she was immensely
impressed with McKenna and thought it terrific that this accomplished
woman was going to be her MP. I then explained how our SMP electoral
system was certain to ensure that this was not going to happen as the
NDP incumbent was well-liked and respected and, as his party was doing
well in the polls, was almost certain to be re-elected. To which my daughter
rolled her eyes and said, “We’ll see.”
McKenna and her team worked extraordinarily hard in her campaign.
Nominated almost 18 months prior to the election, she opened her campaign
office a year in advance and campaigned constantly, with her team of 500
volunteers, by some accounts, knocking on more than 100,000 doors
(Payne, 2015). On election day, McKenna turned a 21,000-vote deficit
from 2011 into a 3,000 vote victory.
When discussing this with colleagues from across Canada, they inevitably point to a Liberal candidate in their community with a similar experience. In their collection on the 2015 election, Pammett and Dornan
(2016) include an account of Liberal candidate Allan Thompson’s campaign in the Ontario riding of Huron-Bruce. Thompson announced his candidacy 18 months before the election, won a contested nomination a year
out and campaigned full time from then through election day (Thompson
2016). By examining party activity at the constituency level, we learn
that the anecdotes relating to McKenna’s and other Liberal candidates’
experiences are not isolated examples but are reflective of something
occurring in constituencies across the country.
The literature concerning the effect of local campaign activity on election outcomes in Canada is far from comprehensive, but does suggest that
local efforts might mean as much as an additional 5 per cent of the vote (see,
for example, Carty and Eagles, 1999, 2005). This literature, however,
focuses almost exclusively on the campaign period: considering voter
contact by parties, spending by local campaigns and numbers of volunteers.
Other work by Blais and colleagues (2003), Coletto (2010) and Roy and
Alcantara (2015) suggests that “strong” local candidates may all contribute
to a small electoral premium. These scholars are likely correct in asserting
that these factors do have some influence on close races. However, I argue
that we need to expand our consideration of local effects to include the
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The Importance of Understanding Local Party Activity
vibrancy of EDAs in the period leading up to the campaign. When we do so,
we learn that the Liberal party was revitalizing in the period between 2011
and 2015 while the Conservatives were largely stagnant at the local level.
That local activity may have had an effect on the election outcome is
suggested by the number of close races and the success of the Liberals in
winning more than their share. The number of races that Liberals won or
lost by five percentage points or less doubled between 2011 and 2015
and their success in converting these into victories increased dramatically.
In 2011, Liberals were involved in 31 close races and won 13; in 2015, they
won 34 of 65 close contests. The Conservatives’ performance is the mirror
inverse. In 2011, they were victorious in 22 of 41 close contests compared
to success in 15 of 39 in 2015.
When considering just the traditional measures of campaign activity,
we find, for example, that Liberal candidates on average had significantly
more volunteers than did their opponents and this is particularly evident
in comparison with the Conservatives. Considering only non-incumbents,
Liberal candidates averaged 107 volunteers compared to 69 for the
Conservatives (p < .05).2 When we include all candidates, the Conservatives
do better, as their incumbents were better resourced, but continue to trail
the Liberals.
But the argument here is that we should also look beyond the campaign
period to the vitality of EDAs in the period leading up to the election.
Quality candidates, funds for the campaign, volunteers and general signs
of party strength are all the result, at least partially in this argument, of
local party vitality in the period leading up to the campaign. Parties know
that they cannot simply “flip a switch” on the day the election is called
and turn dormant EDAs into vibrant associations. This is why party post
mortems, after an electoral loss, regularly point to withered local associations as a cause of their defeat and strike plans for local revitalization.
This is true not only in Canada but has been written about in regards to
parties, for example, in New Zealand, Australia and Ireland (Cross, 2016;
Cross and Gauja, 2014; Little and Farrell, 2013).
After its 2011 electoral debacle, the Liberal party made a commitment
to revitalizing its EDAs. This is exemplified in their “Roadmap to Renewal”
launched prior to their 2012 biennial convention, which states: “The future
health of the Party depends primarily and directly on the health of its
Electoral District Associations (EDAs) and of its provincial and territorial
party affiliates. As a national party, our first priorities must therefore be
(i) rejuvenating and rebuilding LPC’s [Liberal Party of Canada] inactive
or under-performing EDAs with vastly increased grassroots engagement.”
(Liberal Party, 2012a, 2). Some of the practical steps recommended in
the roadmap include having every EDA engage in a membership drive,
creation of a “supporters” class whose members are entitled to participate
in party decision making and encouraging discussion of policy issues at
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the local level feeding into national policy development. The party’s “Guide
to Policy Development” encourages EDAs “to make policy meetings and
discussions a regular part of their activities” acknowledging that this is “critical to the Party’s vitality” (Liberal Party, 2012b). Not surprisingly, this
view is shared by local association presidents, 9 in 10 of whom, in all
three parties, say it is “very important” for their party to have vibrant
local associations. The key question is whether there is evidence that the
Liberals were more active on the ground than their opponents in the leadup to the campaign. Indicators of the vitality of EDAs in this period
include contested and early nominations, successful membership recruitment and engagement, and increasing the pool of financial contributors.
By examining local association activity we discover that the Ottawa
Centre Liberals were not unique in nominating McKenna so long before
the election and that the party took a different approach from its opponents
in this regard. When we consider ridings where the party was not renominating an incumbent, we find that half of Liberal associations chose their
candidate in 2014, compared with 30 per cent of Conservatives and 16
per cent of New Democrats.3 On average, non-incumbent Liberal candidates were chosen 278 days prior to the general election. The Liberals clearly
had a strategy of nominating candidates early, allowing them a long lead
time to campaign.
Liberal nominations were also more likely to be contested, attracting
two and often three or more candidates. As 95 per cent of incumbents
face no challenger for renomination, it is appropriate to consider EDAs
with open nominations: 47 per cent of these Liberal associations had
competitive contests compared with one-third for the Conservatives and
four in ten for the NDP, and half of these Liberal contests attracted three
or more candidates (22% compared with 13% for both the Conservatives
and NDP).
When we turn our attention to membership numbers we again see signs
of significant Liberal rejuvenation. It is difficult to obtain national party
membership numbers as the parties tend to keep these close to their
vests. Overall numbers are only available for the Liberals which show a
year-over-year increase: 60,000 in 2012, 127,261 in 2013, 200,000 in
2014 and 300,000 in 2015 (Canadian Press 2014; De Souza 2013). These
are self-reported and likely are estimations. Nonetheless, they illustrate substantial and continuous growth.
The numbers from the local associations show a similar pattern for the
Liberals and something quite different for the other parties. The important
takeaway from Table 1 is the pattern: Liberals growing consistently in the
years leading up to the election. The large jump in 2014 is likely attributable
to the number of nominations held that year. However, this follows on the
heels of the 2013 leadership contest so it’s an impressive increase. As
Young and Cross (2002) report, most party members have traditionally
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The Importance of Understanding Local Party Activity
Mean EDA membership numbers
Differences between Liberals and Conservatives in 2013, and Liberal difference between 2013 and
2014 p < .01.
joined to participate in one of these personnel recruitment contests while
exiting the party soon afterwards. Thus, even more remarkable is the significant increase in 2015, particularly when compared to the Conservatives.4
The Conservative numbers are generally what we expect to find. It’s
not that they were moribund at the local level, but rather that the Liberals
were gaining in strength.
We can also consider whether the parties were attracting new volunteers or were reliant on long established ones. Not only did the Liberals
have more volunteers on average, but they also attracted large numbers
of new supporters as 71 per cent of their campaign volunteers were not
long-time members contrasted with approximately six in ten Conservative
and NDP volunteers (p < .05). A similar pattern emerges when considering
the number of party events and meetings. Liberal associations lead in each
of the three years and average 3.5 more meetings than Conservatives in
2015 and 5 more than New Democrats.
Liberals also led the way in terms of ongoing communications with
their members. All of the parties indicate that e-mail is their most
common method of communication and 46 per cent of Liberal associations
report being in regular e-mail correspondence with their members compared
with 36 per cent of Conservatives and 33 per cent of New Democrats.
Finally, in terms of members, given the data just reviewed, it is not surprising that the local parties report very different experiences in terms of difficulty in attracting members. Sixty per cent of Conservative and NDP
EDAs report it is more difficult today to recruit members than it was five
years ago. For the Liberals only 40 per cent share this sentiment (p < .05).
Two variables relating to party financing are useful in considering the
vitality of EDAs: total contribution amounts and the number of contributors. In 2012, the Conservatives were well ahead in terms of the mean
amount raised per EDA. Excluding associations that report receiving no
contributions that year,5 local Conservative associations on average
report receiving twice as much as their Liberal counterparts ($18,232
versus $9,539) and close to four times what the New Democrats raised
($5,026). The redrawing of electoral boundaries prior to the 2015 election
makes comparisons over these years challenging. Table 2 shows the amount
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Mean contribution totals per EDA (excluding associations reporting zero
and including only those comparable after redistricting).
of contributions received in 2012 and 2014 for those associations that were
not dramatically affected by redistricting (defined as having at least 75%
consistency in the electorate of the old and new district).6 While the
Conservatives maintained their advantage over this period, the Liberals
significantly closed the gap. In 2012 local Liberal parties raised 51 per
cent of the amount raised by the Conservatives, by 2014 this increased to
82 per cent. Conservative associations report very similar contribution
amounts in these two years, an increase of just $322, while Liberals
show an increase of $6,594.
The data in terms of number of contributors are equally telling. In
2012, for associations that reported receiving contributions, the
Conservatives show a slight lead in mean number of contributors over
the Liberals and a large lead over the NDP (108 contributors on average
compared to 99 and 57). When we compare change over time for trackable
associations, we find the Liberals making dramatic gains. As shown in
Table 3, by 2014 Liberal associations had increased their total by about
80 per cent while Conservative associations saw their numbers decline so
that they now trailed the Liberals by an almost two-to-one margin. The
NDP trail on all these measures but do show modest growth.
There is at least suggestive evidence that these factors of local association vitality are related to electoral success as they have a significant and
positive relationship with the parties’ relative finish in the 2015 election.
We can consider the relationship between these variables and the relative
success of Liberal EDAs as Liberals won approximately half of the
Mean number of contributors per EDA (excluding associations reporting
zero and including only those comparable after redistricting).
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The Importance of Understanding Local Party Activity
ridings they didn’t hold entering the campaign and lost the other half.
Liberal associations in ridings the party won showed more vitality in the
years leading up to the election than did those where they were unsuccessful. As illustrated in Table 4, they were more likely to have contested nominations, had more campaign volunteers and had a dramatically larger
increase in number of financial contributions. This analysis includes
periods when the party was both performing well in opinion polls and
periods when it was shedding support and running third, thus at least partially lessening concerns regarding endogeneity.
The purpose here is not to argue that one can win an election in an
otherwise inhospitable electorate solely by reinvigorating the local EDA.
The effect of these measures, occurring in the two to three years prior to
the election, is likely mediated through the variables traditionally considered in explaining party electoral performance. The argument here is that
these factors can help create an environment that supports a strong campaign effort. Volunteers can more easily be attracted to a vibrant local association and contested nominations with hundreds of new members provide
another pool from which to draw canvassers and contributors. Quality candidates are more likely to be attracted to a local party showing signs of life
and voters generally may take positive note of a vibrant local association.
Carty and Eagles report that local “campaign effects are strongest for the
campaigns of the non-governing parties… Of course, it is precisely in
these settings that the parties have the greatest potential to improve their
parliamentary standings.” (1999: 84). Jenni Byrne was not wrong when
she talked about the importance of EDA vitality to electoral success.
Similarly, the Liberals were not wrong when they looked at their recent
defeats and concluded that success in 2015 required a rebuilding of the
party from the ground up.
Differences between EDA strength in ridings won and lost by the Liberals
in 2015 federal election (ridings with a Liberal incumbent running in 2015
Contested nomination
Mean days nomination held before general election
Mean increase in contributors from 2012 to 2014+
Mean increase in contributions from 2012 to 2014+
Mean number of campaign volunteers*
+includes only ridings that are trackable from 2012 – 2014.
* p < .01; other variables are full population, not derived from survey data.
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Female Representation in the Candidate Pool
Considerable media attention was paid to the achievement of gender parity
in the Trudeau cabinet (Frisk, 2015). At the same time, most remain troubled that women make up only one-quarter of MPs (Equal Voice, 2016).
Scholarly analysis of this issue has long identified the importance of
parties as gatekeepers to national legislatures (Caul, 1999; Gauja and
Cross, 2015; Krook, 2010; Norris and Lovenduski, 1993) and the relevance
of party rules, practices and internal organizational structures, particularly
as relating to candidate nomination, have been highlighted by Erickson
(1991, 1993), Young (2000), Trimble and Arscott (2003) and Childs
(2013). It is well understood that increasing the number of women in the
House of Commons requires a significant increase in the numbers nominated by the major parties.
The real action in candidate selection and recruitment takes place at the
local level (Pruysers and Cross, 2016) and much of what we know about
women and party nominations is a result of scholarly examination of
their experiences in the EDAs. However, these data are not collected and
studied after each election (as are, for example, voter data) making it difficult to systematically study change over time and to know whether findings
are particular to any one election.
In 2015, 496 women sought a nomination for one of the three major
parties: 219 for the NDP, 178 for the Liberals and 99 for the
Conservatives. Examining local data tells us that there were many more
men contesting nominations in all three parties: 44 per cent of NDP nomination candidates were female, 30 per cent for the Liberals and 22 per cent
for the Conservatives.7 These numbers are almost identical to the percentages of female candidates nominated by the parties (NDP 43%, Liberals
31%, Conservatives 20%).
At first glance these data suggest that women are not disadvantaged in
intraparty nomination contests. In fact, two-thirds of female candidates who
sought NDP or Conservative nominations were successful as were six in ten
Liberals. The success rate for male nomination candidates is very similar,
except in the Conservative party where male candidates were slightly
more likely to win a nomination (largely an effect of incumbency).
Another way to consider this is as follows: for the Liberals, women
sought the nomination in 152 ridings and 105 of these nominated
women; for the Conservatives, 66 of 91 EDAs with a female candidate
chose a woman; and, in the NDP, women contested 189 nominations and
146 EDAs selected women. These data suggest that when women seek a
nomination, they have as much chance of being nominated as do men
which is generally consistent with what Erickson (1991) found in her examination of 1988 nomination contests.
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The Importance of Understanding Local Party Activity
However, when we dig a little deeper, the picture becomes somewhat
less clear. For example, when both a man and a woman contest an open
nomination, men are more likely to be victorious in all three parties. In
these situations, men were nominated in 54 per cent of Liberal contests,
58 per cent of Conservative ones and six in ten NDP contests. This is a
setback from Erickson’s finding (1991: 112) that women won 54 per cent
of these contests in 1988.
Perhaps more concerning is the fact that when there is an open contest
and a woman stands for the nomination, she is significantly more likely to
be challenged than is the case if only a man stands for nomination. While 53
per cent of open Liberal nominations resulted in acclamations, this was true
only 35 per cent of the time when a woman stood; similarly, two-thirds of
open Conservative nominations resulted in an acclamation but this was true
only 42 per cent of the time when a woman put herself forward. For the
NDP, while 60 per cent of all open nominations resulted in acclamations,
this was reduced to 50 per cent when a female candidate stood. These findings are consistent with recent evidence from the American literature
demonstrating that women are more likely to be challenged in primaries
(Lawless and Pearson, 2008). Thus, it is not as clear as the existing literature
suggests that female candidates do not face additional hurdles in winning a
party nomination. The 2015 experience suggests that even when women run
they are more likely than their male counterparts to attract an intraparty
opponent and, if that opponent is a man, odds are they will lose. What is
unknown is if this is consistent over recent elections or a one-off anomaly.
While the literature and the 2015 data suggest this is both a supply and
demand issue (though see Ashe and Stewart, 2012), a significant challenge
continues to be getting more women to run for major party nominations.
The question is how to do so. This is obviously a complex question with
no single answer. Gidengil and colleagues (2004), O’Neill (2015) and
Pruysers and Blais (forthcoming), suggest that many factors beyond institutional barriers, including perceptions of political life, levels of political
ambition, and political knowledge and interest all influence this question.
Some of this becomes evident in the different opinions and attitudes of
those men and women who did seek candidacy in 2015. In this regard,
the 2015 findings are consistent with those of Lawless and Fox for the
US (2005). For example, as shown in Table 5, male candidates are more
likely to report that seeking a federal party nomination was the next
logical step in their political careers, more likely to report that, prior to
their decision to run for Parliament, they were “political junkies” and that
they first thought about careers in politics at a younger age than did their
female counterparts.
Given these findings relating to gender differences in political ambition, it is perhaps not surprising that half or more of EDA presidents in
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Political Ambition and Candidate Gender
Candidate gender
Seeking nomination was next logical step in
my political career
before first seeking the nomination, describe
self as a political junkie
age at which first considered a life in politics
gender differences across rows *p < .05 **p < .10
all three parties report that it is more difficult to convince qualified women
than men to run for office.
An examination of data from the 2015 candidate and EDA surveys
does offer suggestions as to what may lead to more female candidates.
One partial answer to the question is if parties want more women to seek
nominations, they need to ask them to run. In this regard, the data
suggest findings generally consistent with earlier studies such as Cross
and Young (2013) and Cheng and Tavits (2011).
When candidates are asked what was important to their decision to
seek their parties’ nomination, a gender difference emerges. Male candidates are more likely to be political self-starters. Two-thirds of female candidates report that they were asked by a party official to seek the nomination
compared to half of male candidates. And, as shown in Table 6, being asked
by a local party official or search committee is more common than being
asked by a national party representative. Slightly more than half of the
female candidates were asked by local officials to run while one-third
were asked by national party representatives.
It has long been suggested that party search committees can be instrumental in increasing diversity in the candidate pool (Erickson, 1991: 112–
13). All of the parties, to varying degrees, encourage their EDAs to conduct
an active search. However, a significant minority of associations do not
follow these directives. For example, in the Liberal party, the rules for candidate selection require EDAs provide “documented evidence of a thorough
When first deciding to seek a party nomination did the following encourage
you to run?
Male candidates
Female candidates
Local party official/search committee
representative of national party
gender differences across columns p < .05.
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The Importance of Understanding Local Party Activity
search for potential candidates who are female” unless it is “determined that
no such search is necessary” (Liberal Party, 2013: 1.7(a),(b)). Nonetheless
36 per cent of Liberal EDAs, without an incumbent seeking renomination,
report not establishing a formal search committee (25% for the
Conservatives and 10% for the NDP). This is important as when there is
a local search committee the likelihood of a woman contesting the nomination increases by 25 per cent.
It also matters who does the asking. Local party presidents see it as part
of their mandate to seek out nomination candidates as eight in 10 local presidents, in associations with open nominations, encouraged someone to run.
Cheng and Tavits (2011) found that women are more likely to be nominated
in associations that have a woman as local president. We can take this one
step further by including all candidates for the nomination and examine the
relationship between the president’s gender and whether a woman seeks the
nomination. In this way, it is possible to examine the relationship between
recruitment by a female president and women seeking the nomination
without regard to whether they succeed. It has been hypothesized that
female presidents may be more likely than their male counterparts to encourage female candidates and that the presence of a female president may
make the local association appear more welcoming. The data support this
as in two-thirds of the open nominations with a female EDA president
there was a female nomination candidate compared with 44 per cent of
EDAs with a male president (p < .05).
Cheng and Tavits (2011: 469) suggest it would be useful to know
whether having women in other positions on the local executive might
also make a difference but they note that these data are “virtually impossible
to obtain.” The 2015 EDA survey data suggest a significant relationship
between the proportion of local executive positions filled by women and
the likelihood of a woman seeking the nomination. When half or more of
the positions are filled by women, there is a female candidate in open nominations 62 per cent of the time compared with 40 per cent when men dominate the executive (p < .01). The same dynamics are likely at play here in
terms of female party officials being more likely to recruit female candidates. The challenge is that the mean share of female representation on local
party executives is 42 per cent, and this ranges from 33 per cent for the
Conservatives to 48 per cent for the New Democrats (p < .05). And, in
understanding this, we are aided by data from the survey of party
members. In the last comprehensive survey of Canadian party members,
Cross and Young (2004) found that 59 per cent were male. Sixteen years
after that survey, the situation has not improved. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in the members survey are male. Women are underrepresented
in the memberships of all three parties as 69 per cent of Conservatives,
63 per cent of Liberals and 57 per cent of NDPers are men. Given the apparent disproportionate representation of men in the parties’ memberships, it
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is not surprising that they are overrepresented on local executives and as
presidents. Given the importance of these groups in attracting candidates,
it is not surprising that women are underrepresented as nomination candidates, general election candidates and ultimately as MPs.
Women will run when local associations have women on their executives and local EDAs that ask them. But these local associations are male
dominated as is the party membership they are drawn from. And when a
woman does step forward, she is more likely to attract a challenger than
is her male counterpart. Finally, when a man and woman compete against
one another for nomination, the male candidate is favoured to win.8
The scholarship concerning the political recruitment of women has
become more focused on the role of EDAs in identifying barriers and
opportunities for female candidates. Collecting these data, through candidate and EDA surveys, on a regular basis will facilitate greater understanding of change over time particularly relating to the effects of changes in
party organization and the party system.
The principal point of this address is that we can only fully study many
important aspects of Canadian politics by collecting riding level data to
include in our analyses. Relying solely on impressions drawn from the
national level makes our understanding incomplete at best. Here, by way
of example, I’ve focused on local party vitality in the run-up to the 2015
election and on the question of gender representation in the candidate
pool. However, other questions—for example, relating to personalisation
of our politics, the issues emphasized during local campaigns, the connections between parties and civil society—can all only fully be answered by
including in our consideration the local dimensions of party life. These activities need to be studied not only during campaigns but also between them,
as much of consequence occurs, on the ground, in the “quiet” period
between elections.
For all of the surveys, data were collected for the five parties represented in the House of
Commons. In this address, only data relating to the three largest parties are used. The
candidate survey was conducted online between November 2015 and January 2016.
E-mail addresses were provided by the parties (note that valid addresses were not provided for 25 per cent of NDP candidates). Usable responses were received from 41.2 per
cent of Conservative candidates (138), 23.3 per cent of Liberals (78) and 44.3 per cent of
New Democrats (113) for an overall response rate of 35.6 per cent. Twenty-two per cent
of Conservative respondents were elected in 2015 as were 34 per cent of Liberals and 10
per cent of New Democrats. The EDA survey was conducted online between February
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The Importance of Understanding Local Party Activity
and March 2016. E-mail addresses were captured from Elections Canada reports. The
response rate by party for valid e-mail addresses is 14.1 per cent for the
Conservatives (39), 27.6 per cent for the Liberals (91) and 28 per cent for the NDP
(81) for an overall response rate of 23.5 per cent. The party members survey was
conducted online between February and April of 2016 and includes 932 responses.
Respondents were drawn from a pool of 2586 members identified by survey firm
Research Now.
When differences in data derived from one of the surveys are significant, this is reported.
The vast majority of incumbents seeking re-election in all three parties were renominated pre-2015. Data relating to timing and competitiveness of nomination contests are
from EDA reports to Elections Canada as of March 2016.
Membership data are from the EDA survey.
This leaves 249 Conservative, 284 Liberal and 227 New Democratic associations. Intraparty transfers are not included.
This analysis makes use of poll-level transposition calculations from found
Data regarding gender of nomination candidates comes from EDA reports to Elections
A further challenge is parties disproportionately nominating women in their least
competitive ridings (see Thomas and Bodet, 2013). Further research should examine
the unique obstacles facing women in open nominations in competitive ridings.
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