BC Liberal leader Christy Clark trails NDP leader Adrian Dix in the female vote, according to recent polls, despite her attempts to resonate with women. (CP)
By Cassidy Olivier, The Province
For a brief period about two years ago, Tara Torrell, 32, would likely have voted for the BC Liberals, who were experiencing a rebirth of sorts under the stewardship of newly anointed premier Christy Clark.
At the time, Clark, fresh off her leadership win, was speaking about the importance of families and doing stuff like slinging coffee during the morning rush at the Sunshine Diner, raising the minimum wage, and walking the beat with Vancouver police officers.
As someone who had voted NDP in the past, Torrell, a health-care worker, found Clark’s approach to politics refreshing, engaging and, at the time, in-line with her personal values as a voter.
“I actually liked her,” Torrell said. “Because she was new and you are thinking ‘OK, she might have a different approach.’ She had been a talk-show host so you are thinking she is a little more connected to the community and maybe she can bring forth her ideas.”
The polls from the time suggest Torrell wasn’t alone in her thinking.
According to a March 2011 survey from Angus Reid Public Opinion, the Liberals had surpassed the NDP by five points, a considerable feat given the months-long beating the party, and then leader Gordon Campbell, had taken over the mishandling of the HST.
Public anger over the tax had been so great that just four months earlier, in November 2010, the NDP had amassed a 21-point lead over the governing Liberals. Campbell, his personal approval ratings at 12 per cent, resigned from office that same month.
But with a fresh face at the helm, the March 2011 poll suggested voters were prepared to offer the BC Liberals another chance.
More interesting, however, was that the results showed the Liberals were gaining traction among women voters, which suggested Clark’s play to the so-called softer issues of family and affordability — historically NDP territory — was resonating.
“That is when women said: Hey, this is interesting, this is a person who is here for me,” said Mario Canseco, vice-president of polling firm Angus Reid Public Opinion.
“It was because she was connecting on an issue that the NDP had dominated on for so long. And it disappeared so quickly.”
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Within months the polls started to shift. Not only did the NDP open up a massive 20-point lead, Clark’s personal approval ratings nosedived. But perhaps more important was the gaping gender gap that quickly developed under Clark’s watch.
To be fair, the gap has always existed, as women voters have historically tended to support the party that has focused more on social issues (NDP) over the so-called centre-right issues of economy and crime (Social Credit, BC Liberals).
But the sheer size of it had some in the media suggesting it could be a defining factor in the election.
Mario Canseco, vice-president of the polling firm Angus Reid Public Opinion, says polls show Premier Christy Clark is facing a large gender gap. (Jenelle Schneider/PNG)
As early as last week, the divide stood at a commanding 19 points (48 per cent of female voters saying they will vote NDP compared to 29 per cent who said they will vote Liberal). By comparison, a poll taken right before the May 2009 election showed a gender gap of only four points.
An Angus Reid poll released Thursday, however, suggests the current gap has closed considerably, with 35 per cent of female voters now saying they will vote Liberal, compared to 45 per cent who said they will vote NDP. That’s a 6-per-cent gain within a week.
An Ipsos Reid poll released Friday also noted a considerable narrowing — not quite as significant, though — with 50 per cent of women surveyed saying they will vote NDP, 30 per cent saying they will vote Liberal. (Last month it was 54 per cent NDP, 23 per cent Liberal.)
This sudden narrowing could be a result of Clark’s concerted efforts to court the female vote via women’s events. It’s also possible that her messaging — strong economy equals strong families — may have started to resonate with women.
But it could also be the result of a fear factor as voting day inches closer, experts say.
The poll suggests that a small amount of disaffected Liberal female voters, who may have parked their vote with the NDP in protest, are reconsidering their choice as the campaign enters the home-stretch.
“Ultimately my view about women who voted for the Liberals under Campbell and were unconvinced about Clark’s leadership are looking at it in a more pragmatic way and saying, ‘I may be mad at them, …. but the fear of an NDP government at this point … is so much that I will be willing to forget them and vote for them again,” said Canseco.
But even if the gap has narrowed to eight points, it doesn’t fully answer the questions around what appears to be a complex relationship between Clark and women voters: Is there a personal dislike or is it more of an issue of what her party represents? Is it a bit of both?
“Now it is like she is just a face,” Torrell said of Clark. “It’s like she is just following other people and not really doing the right thing.”
Tara Torrell isn’t feeling nearly as upbeat about Christy Clark now as she was when Clark first took over the Liberal leadership. (Jenelle Schneider/PNG)
Torrell’s comments go some way in supporting the argument pundits have put forward in an effort to explain what was, until this week, a potentially decisive gender gap: namely that Clark strikes many women as inauthentic.
“Fundamentally, I think the thing that is unnerving to women is this issue around authenticity,” said political commentator Martyn Brown, Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff. “Is she the person she purports to be? Is she sincere?”
This has been partly caused by the constant shift in messaging emanating from the Premier’s Office, explained Brown.
There has also been Clark’s questionable handling of issues like Richard Branson’s offer to go kitesurfing in the buff and, earlier this year, her response to an admittedly crass query posed by a radio host where she stated that it was better to be a MILF than a cougar.
We hit the streets to find out what women think of Christy Clark. (Rafe Arnott/The Province)
“I think a lot of women, especially single moms, they almost resent her comparison as a single mother and really that is a bit of a credibility gap as well,” said Laila Yuile, a political columnist for 24 Hours. “Because her life as a single mother is so removed. So when she comes out and brings her son and talks about how hard it is to be a working mother, most women who are in the same situation, would actually just roll their eyes.”
But there are others, like Mary Polak, Liberal candidate in Langley, who have consistently maintained that there is a major disconnect between what the polls were saying and what was being said on the ground.
“I hear very positive things about her from women in my community,” said Polak.
The “Women 4 Christy” Facebook page, created by a self-proclaimed non-partisan group, supports this view.
Pollster Evi Mustel, meantime, said the gap has nothing to do with Clark’s personal stock among women. Mustel, who said she has been tracking the gap for a long time, recently said the gap isn’t nearly as large as the other polls suggest.
“Really, the numbers are exactly where they were when Gordon Campbell was in the same positions in the polls,” she said. “So my take is it is not so much a gender gap. I mean they have always had a problem with the gender gap, but it is not a Christy Clark problem — it is a Liberal Party problem.”
Polls aside, Torrell, for her part, is still undecided where she will cast her vote May 14. But it won’t be for the Liberals.
“It is hard to say,” she said. “It’s 50-50 between the NDP and the Greens.”
WHAT THE POLLS SAY ABOUT CHRISTY CLARK
The ‘best premier’ question: 18 per cent
Approval rating: 27 per cent
Disapproval rating: 63 per cent
Momentum score: -38 per cent
— Angus Reid Public Opinion, April 16, 2013
Top four descriptives
Out of touch: 41 per cent
Arrogant : 39 per cent
Secretive: 33 per cent
Inefficient: 33 per cent
— Angus Reid Public Opinion, Feb. 5, 2013