Harper Leads among Female Voters

The generic signs and banners at an election rally aren't usually worth a second glance. But at Stéphane DION's campaign launch in Ottawa, among the dozens of standard-issue LIBERAL-red placards being waved by his supporters, a rather drab white one stood out. It bore no slogan, no candidate's name, just the words "National Women's Liberal Commission" in not very large print. The commission works to promote equal participation by women in the party. When the cheering was over, Maria Al-Masani, the 24-year-old campaign volunteer holding the sign, said she was glad to hear Dion announce that at least a third of Liberal candidates in this election are women. "It's a concrete measure," she said. "It's not just talk."

Al-Masani is the sort of female supporter Liberals like to point to when they tout their traditional edge among women voters. It's been a key strategic advantage in recent elections. In fact, analysts point out that if CONSERVATIVES had attracted as high a share of women voters as they did of men in the 2006 election, Stephen HARPER would almost certainly have won a majority. So at the start of the 2008 race, Liberals have reason to be alarmed as polls suggest they've lost their crucial gender-gap lead among women, while the Tories' traditional advantage among men appears to be holding up.

Alarmed, that is, if they are paying much attention. In fact, the apparent disappearance of the Liberals' widely assumed lead among women is arguably the most overlooked big factor at the outset of this campaign, and not only in news reports and pundits' chatter. Some senior Liberal officials contacted by Maclean's said they hadn't yet focused on public polls showing their female-vote edge is in jeopardy. Yet the numbers are dramatic enough for Donna Dasko, senior vice-president of the polling firm Environics Research Group, to call the largely unheralded pre-campaign evaporation of the old pro-Liberal tendency among Canadian women "extraordinary" and "perplexing."

Those numbers are pretty clear. Environics' big pre-election poll for the CBC, surveying an unusually large sample of 2,505 potential voters in the week before the campaign began, discovered that many more women were planning to vote for the Tories than for the Liberals. Overall, the poll found 38 per cent of Canadians supporting the Conservatives, 28 per cent the Liberals, 19 per cent the NDP, eight the BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS, and seven the GREENS. The Tory lead, after months of the top two parties polling roughly neck-and-neck, got plenty of attention. Mostly overlooked, though, was the even more surprising gender split: the Conservatives led not only among men, with 41 per cent to the Liberals' 28 per cent, but were also strides ahead among women, boasting a 35 to 28 per cent lead. "I find this an extremely interesting development," Dasko said. "I can't quite figure out why it is. There certainly has been a traditional advantage for the Liberals in women's votes."

And her finding doesn't look like an aberration. Environics' previous national political preferences poll, conducted in late June and early July, also showed the Tories two percentage points ahead of the Liberals among women, 32 to 30. In March, the two leading parties were tied among women, 30 to 30. In other words, the three polls taken together show the Tories steadily tracking upward in women's support. Other polling firms are turning up similar findings - the Conservatives easily competitive with the Liberals among women, while maintaining front-runner status among men.

Liberal strategists did not sound particularly shaken when the numbers were pointed out to them. "It has to do with millions of dollars in pre-campaign Tory ads bringing down Mr. Dion," said one top party official, predicting women will return to the Liberal fold during the campaign. They'll have to for Dion to avoid disaster. Michael Marzolini, the Liberal party's long-time top pollster, leaves no doubt about what the gender voting split represents: the difference between victory and defeat. "If the Liberals don't have an advantage among women, they do not win," Marzolini told Maclean's. "Especially women over 55 - that is over 25 per cent of the entire electorate."

If the Tories are now looking surprisingly strong among women, they are hardly taking them for granted. Who was the target audience of those fireside-chat TV ads, released by the Conservatives just before the writ was dropped, in which Harper, casually clad in a sweater vest, leans forward to talk about his relationship with his son? Which voters did the Tories have in mind when they positioned the Prime Minister at the kitchen table of the Huang family in Richmond, B.C., right next to their 14-month-old son Eric in his high chair, for the first major campaign photo-op? Women, first and foremost, were in the Tories' crosshairs in the early going.

It's a clear bid to court the female vote, and one that looks designed to counter any lingering misgivings some women might have about Harper's reputation for gloves-off politics. Only half joking, Al-Masani describes his style as "macho with a hockey stick." Not joking at all, Penny Collenette, former Jean Chrétien candidate and Liberal candidate in an Ottawa riding now held by the NDP, predicts women will ultimately recoil from Harper's "in-your-face aggressive style." Conservatives say their campaign will correct that misperception. Calgary MP Diane Ablonczy, one of the relatively few veteran women in Harper's caucus, said highlighting his warm feelings for his family will help offset the opposition's portrayal of him as an aloof bully. Ablonczy hesitated to generalize about what women are looking for in a politician. "But I think it is true," she allowed, "that women want to see what's in a person's heart, especially in a leadership position."

Harper can afford to accentuate his sweater-wearing, baby-cuddling side because his numbers among men look solid. Dion must attempt a trickier balancing act: both the expected challenge of winning over men, and now the unexpected need to reach out to women. Liberal tacticians were striving, at least at the outset, to present him as a man's man, a bid to counter the stock Tory description of him as an "elitist professor." A new Liberal website launched this week highlights Dion's outdoorsy side, showing him skiing, snowshoeing and fishing. He also came out of his corner punching hard on the hustings, accusing the Tories of "piling lies upon lies."

That Dion needs to persuade voters - especially men - that he's no wimp is remarkable considering his early political career. After all, his first eight years on the federal stage were as Chrétien's intergovernmental affairs minister, a one-man scourge of Quebec separatists and champion of federalism, known in his home province for a doggedly combative style. Hardly a wimp.

Despite that track record, the Tories largely succeeded in painting him as an indecisive, bookish figure in negative ads unleashed in early 2007. They showed him in the don't-ask-me shrugging pose still favoured by the Conservatives in their ongoing attacks. Liberals can hardly credit how enduring that bit of caricature has turned out to be. "With Stéphane, the criticism in Quebec was always that he was too tough, to the point of being rigid," says Toronto MP Martha Hall Findlay. "But those attack ads were incredibly successful in redefining him, not just with Canadians at large, but with many Liberals."

Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker says the ads "certainly didn't help," but he suggests the source of Dion's difficulties with men can't be so precisely pinpointed. "It's just something about Dion that doesn't go over well with male voters," Bricker said in an interview. "It may be partly his party, maybe some of the policies he's talking about, or just how he comes across."

Yet the Liberal campaign can't afford to focus just on Dion's deficit with men. According to a recent Ipsos Reid poll, 63 per cent of women regard Harper's leadership abilities as "great" or "good," only marginally less than the 66 per cent of males who regard Harper that positively. By comparison, just 43 per cent of women regarded Dion as "great" or "good" as a leader, and only 35 per cent of men. In other words, Dion's doing better with women than men, but far worse than Harper with both. One possibility is that the Liberals shouldn't try to devise separate approaches for connecting with the two sexes: maybe the same gutsy campaign style and woodsy Internet images they hope will score with men will also impress women.

Image isn't everything, though. Letting the public see Harper in sweaters and Dion in outerwear can only go so far in remaking their personas. Campaigns are also about issues. But women don't line up predictably on policy questions any more than men do. In the 2004 campaign, for instance, the Liberals ran on an ambitious child care plan aimed at expanding daycare and early learning. But the Tories countered in 2006 by promising instead a $100 monthly payment for every child under six years old. Dasko says the debate over which was better for families - more money for programs or more for parents - split the voting public about evenly, including women.

Still, the Conservatives clearly believe they scored well with females in key suburban ridings where they hope for new seats. "The child benefit was hugely welcome," says Ablonczy, "especially by mums with young kids." Trying to make the policy a wedge issue again, the Conservatives accuse Dion of secretly planning to scrap the $1,200-a-year per child payments they introduced in government. "That's $1,200 he wants to take away," intones the narrator in a Tory ad, "because he thinks he can spend that money better than you can." (The Liberals flatly deny that, promising to keep the $1,200 per child payments, add a new refundable tax credit of $350 per child, and pump more money into creating daycare spaces.)

Other policy areas that are usually seen as particularly interesting to women are not prominent in the campaign so far. Dasko says women are historically more concerned than men about social policy, education, and health care. None of these are top-of-mind in the early stages. Dion's focus on the environment is occupying much of the policy room the Liberals traditionally give over to those subjects. But Dasko doubts his Green Shift plan is inherently very grabby when it comes to female voters. "Women are less interested in the environment as an issue than men are," she say, citing Environics polling on issues. "So with Dion focusing on the environment, rather than, say, social issues that are more salient for women, maybe that's, I won't say driving women away, but not attracting women."

Another tactic Dion might try is surrounding himself by women on the campaign trail. Dasko says research, especially in the U.S., finds that women are drawn by the sight of women in political leadership roles. And Harper's cabinet has been thin when it comes to front-bench female star power. Rona Ambrose, considered to have potential early on, stumbled as environment minister, and was shuffled to intergovernmental affairs, where she sank from sight. A few credible female Tory ministers, such as Diane Finley in citizenship and immigration, have been mainly low-profile. Dion might try playing up women in his caucus talent pool, notably Hall Findlay, one of his former leadership rivals. He also has more powerful women on his staff, including Johanne Senécal, his chief of staff, and Katie Telford as deputy chief of staff. Harper's top aides, including his chief of staff, top policy advisers and communications director, are all men. But backroom figures rarely matter much in election campaigns.

Tough as connecting with women is proving to be, Dion's bigger challenge might still be winning over men. Previous attempts at lending him a manly image have been uneven at best. While vacationing over the summer, Dion entered a fishing tournament and caught a 10-lb. pike. Pictures of him posing with the trophy were quickly distributed to the media, but the photos aren't very flattering - his shirt tucked in, his grip on the fish rather awkward. "You can go a little crazy on this," Bricker says. "Remember Michael Dukakis and the tank? How do you campaign to men?"

One way is to talk about the issues that matter most to them. Men tend to be more concerned about the economy, and Dion has a potentially potent reminder to offer about Liberal economic and fiscal management. He was, after all, part of the Chrétien government that eliminated the deficit and ruled during an unprecedented stretch of unbroken prosperity. He has been trying to hammer home a stump speech about how the Tories have allowed government spending to grow and the federal surplus to shrink. Both points are true, but persuading voters to view Liberals as tight-fisted and Tories as big-spenders goes against the grain of deeply entrenched popular perceptions of both parties. And Harper counters that he is the safe, proven choice and Dion is a big gamble.

Of course, women don't vote as a block, or decide which party to support for the same reasons, any more than men do. "You're always looking at segments of women voters," Dasko says, "not women as a whole." One slice of women voters Dion might well be eyeing greedily are those now leaning toward voting for Jack LAYTON's NDP. The NDP continued to poll markedly better among women than men in that latest Environics poll. But women who are leaning strongly toward the NDP might be hard for the Liberals to pry back, depending on which issues are in play. On Afghanistan, for instance, Dion's Liberals voted with the Tories to extend Canada's military mission in Kandahar to 2011, but Layton's NDP called for an immediate withdrawal. And Dasko says only 33 per cent of women support Canada's fighting role in Afghanistan, compared to 50 per cent of men.

At this early point, Liberal pollster Marzolini does not see a split between male and female voters on the issues, beyond the broader one between supporters of the big parties. "I don't see a specific gender-based issue in voting right now," he says. "I see it as generally being proportional. It's proportional to where the tide is overall." And if an important swing in the female vote does materialize, he thinks it is unlikely to happen until the back stretch in the six-week campaign. "Women tend to do more comparison shopping," Marzolini says. "They'll look at all the attributes and make up their mind. They'll also make up their mind nearer the end of a campaign than the beginning, if you compare them to men."

Men tend to make voting choices earlier and are more prone to sticking with them. And that makes the votes of women - more fluid, tugged in various directions by different policies, influenced by subtle tests of leadership character - a major prize in this campaign. Harper has a surprising share of it within his grasp, maybe enough to start dreaming of a majority. Dion must pull a big chunk of it back, or his defeat is certain.

Maclean's September 22, 2008