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British Columbia Premier Christy Clark during a news conference in Vancouver, Oct. 17, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark during a news conference in Vancouver, Oct. 17, 2012. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Politics

Regaining women’s favour Clark’s biggest challenge Add to ...

B.C. Premier Christy Clark spent the first day of her Liberal Party’s annual convention on Friday drinking in praise and basking in the warm admiration of the hundreds of delegates in attendance.

As you watched people line up to have their picture taken with the Premier or to get her autograph on a convention program, it was hard to believe this was the same person held in such disdain by a large segment of the B.C. public, especially women.

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That antipathy towards the Premier by women has become the leading storyline of her 20 months on the job. When she started out in February, 2011, most women in the province seemed to be elated that the smart, charismatic former radio talk show host had ascended to the most powerful position in the province.

But over the ensuing months, the support for the Premier among women in particular has plummeted. In the most recent polls, the gender gap – women who say they’d vote for the NDP over the Liberals – has grown to more than 30 points. It is the single biggest political problem that Ms. Clark and her party have. It is the single biggest issue affecting her party’s re-election chances.

And most people blame her for the problem. Women just don’t seem to like her. There have been plenty of theories advanced about what the source of the problem is. They include: Women don’t like the Premier’s confrontational style; she comes across as too arrogant and me-first; women are just harder on other women.

I’m not sure any of those are the issue. And I think it’s an insult to women to suggest that such surface traits such as arrogance would be the thing to make them turn off Ms. Clark. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and you can’t be a successful politician without loads of self-assuredness. I think it would take more than that to persuade women a politician wasn’t worth supporting.

Men are different. They often vote in their own self-interest. Many of those who have connections in the business world, for instance, look at the Liberals and see a party whose policies better line up with their own needs and ambitions. It almost doesn’t matter what the leader is like.

Women are more discerning. Those who have abandoned Ms. Clark have done so, I believe, mostly because of their assessment of the job she’s done. Many women have witnessed a politician too easily moved by the whims of popular opinion or the political needs of her wobbly free-enterprise coalition. They see a politician who loves a photo-op but so far has not been as impressive speaking about matters of substance. They have lost respect for her as a politician, not as a woman.

Many women have contrasted Ms. Clark’s style with that of New Democratic Party Leader Adrian Dix and have decided, at the moment at least, that he seems more genuine, less easily prone to being blown off course by quirk or capriciousness.

Among those who believes this is Stephen Carter, the Alberta-based political strategist and campaign wunderkind who will speak to B.C. Liberal convention delegates behind closed doors Saturday. His subject is campaign strategy but he will talk about Ms. Clark’s problem with women.

Mr. Carter, it should be noted, was the mastermind behind Naheed Nenshi’s shocking mayoralty victory in Calgary in 2010. After that, he guided Alison Redford to the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, against all expectations. And then he was campaign director for the Alberta Tories in last spring’s election, which most predicted the party would lose. They didn’t.

He understands voters and what makes them tick. He understands the voting tendencies of women in particular.

“Women are exceptionally tuned in to what is authentic and what is not,” Mr. Carter told me. “Men listen to what they want to hear. Not women.

“There is a temptation among politicians to appeal to voters by simply feeding them back what you think they want to hear. Women are too smart for that. You need to connect with them on a different level.”

Because women aren’t easily swayed, it makes Ms. Clark’s election task that much harder – time is running out on her. Mr. Carter believes the Premier’s only hope of defying all of the pessimistic predictions is to seize on an issue she feels hopelessly passionate about, an issue she’s prepared to lose the election over, and go with it.

“You can’t be who you’re not,” Mr. Carter said. “The Liberals didn’t elect Christy Clark to lead Gordon Campbell’s coalition, they elected her to lead her own. She has to have the confidence to do that and believe to her core in what she is doing.

“If she does that, the rest takes care of itself. But she has a tough road ahead of her, no question.”

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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