If you want to know why Pierre Poilievre ditched his trademark suit and glasses for a more Miami Vice-inspired vibe, look no further than his dismal polling numbers with Canadian women. Yes, he enjoys a commanding lead over Justin Trudeau’s Liberals among young men, Albertans and those without a post-secondary education. But when it comes to women, polls consistently put him well behind both the Liberals and Jagmeet Singh’s NDP. If he can’t lose that gap, it’s going to cost him an election the Conservatives should probably win.
As the Globe and Mail reported, pollster Quito Maggi’s December 2022 data showed the Liberals with a 12-point lead among women over Poilievre’s Conservatives, a gap that widened to 40 points among 18- to 34-year-olds. A few months later, the Angus Reid Institute came out with its own polling showing that women preferred Trudeau to Poilievre by nearly 20 points. As Angus Reid Institute CEO Shachi Kurl said in an op-ed, “that’s half the electorate, folks.” Or, as NDP strategist Karl Bélanger told the Globe and Mail, “In 20 years in politics I have never seen a gender gap like the one we have now.”
And while there’s a clear temptation among some Conservatives to ascribe this gap entirely to Trudeau’s good looks — the sexism and irony here should both be obvious — there’s obviously much more at play. First and foremost, there’s the fact that one of Trudeau’s signature moments as prime minister came when he announced a gender-balanced cabinet. It’s not quite on the level of his dad’s “just watch me” line, but his now-famous quip that he did it “because it’s 2015” helped cement his reputation as a self-described feminist.
That wasn’t just virtue signalling, either, much as conservative politicians and pundits at the time tried to pretend otherwise. The critiques that Trudeau had abandoned merit for representation were really just confessions by said critics that they didn’t believe women could be as qualified as men. It’s also worth noting only 12 of the 39 ministers in Stephen Harper’s cabinet after the 2011 election were women, with none of them occupying senior roles like finance, defence or foreign affairs. Those posts are all occupied by women in the Trudeau government today.
And yet, those criticisms (and confessions) haven’t gone away. After Joe Biden congratulated Trudeau for his gender-balanced cabinet, and Conservative MPs in the House of Commons very conspicuously refused to clap, Poilievre’s director of communications Sarah Fischer fell on the grenade. “Imagine being a woman in Trudeau’s cabinet,” she tweeted, “and not knowing if it was merit or gender that got you there.”
Fischer wasn’t done. In an attempt to clarify her initial statement, she tweeted: “I find it patronizing, insulting and demeaning when Trudeau expects a pat on the back or a standing ovation for placing women in his cabinet to fill a quota. Women can compete on merit.” That they already do, and already had in his cabinet, didn’t seem to occur to her. Neither did the fact that her statement essentially implies former prime minister Harper only thought 12 women in his caucus were able to compete on merit with the likes of Jason Kenney, Tony Clement and Joe Oliver.
Trudeau’s enduring popularity among women isn’t just a function of his cabinet, though. It’s also about the approach to issues his government chooses to prioritize, from climate change (which has traditionally shown a huge gender split) and gun control. Even on COVID-19, there’s an obvious gender divide between his pro-social attitude towards vaccines and safety and conspicuous attention to the “she-cession” and Poilievre’s freedom-oriented, small-government message.
If Poilievre wants to do something to blunt Trudeau’s advantage here, he should start by listening to people like Marjory LeBreton. As the consummate Conservative insider and former senator told the Globe and Mail, “I think people generally, but women in particular, are so tired of the vitriol and the anger. They are not looking for someone to hype up the rhetoric and point out all that is wrong. They want solutions.”
So far, at least, he doesn’t seem to be taking that advice. His solutions, such as they are, tend to revolve around blaming the prime minister for all of this country’s ails and ills and promising that everything will improve when he’s replaced. That’s why the style makeover (one that includes the sudden presence of his wife at press events) was the only move his team could make to improve his favourability among women. It might impress his more ardent (some might say obsessive) online fans, but it’s not going to do much to move the needle among those who aren’t already convinced.
The gender divide in federal politics has never been wider, writes columnist @maxfawcett. Will Pierre Poilievre and Justin Trudeau try to narrow the gap, or double down on their respective strengths? #cdnpoli
Instead, he’ll almost certainly double down on his existing advantage among men. Witness his willingness to pose with someone wearing a “straight pride” shirt at the Calgary Stampede, a decision that plays far better among men than women. Or listen to his speeches about housing, ones that talk about the plight of 35-year-olds who have to take their dates home to their mom’s basement — and clearly wink at the incel community in the process. That’s a community, by the way, that he seemed to quietly court in the past by using controversial tags buried in his YouTube videos.
So rest assured, as divided as the electorate is now, it could easily get worse by the time the next election arrives. What we need are political leaders who try to bridge divides and close rifts. What we seem to have, unfortunately, are ones on both side who’d rather double down on them instead.