When the Prime Minister introduced his new cabinet, he emphasized that his shuffle included a number of new women. In addition to giving cabinet a slightly younger and fresher complexion, the Conservatives likely felt that having more women in cabinet would help improve their image. They have good reason to want to rebuild bridges with female voters, as they have shed more of their support since the last election than they have among men.
Stephen Harper’s large cabinet now features 12 women, up from 10 before the shuffle. The increase, then, has been modest – but the Conservative drop in support among Canadian women has been far more substantial.
Of the polls conducted in the month of June – and where demographic data was available – the Conservatives averaged only 25 per cent support among women, compared to 27 per cent for the New Democrats and 34 per cent for the Liberals. Among men, the Conservatives were tied with the Liberals at 33 per cent apiece, while the NDP averaged 22 per cent.
That disparity of eight points between men and women is quite significant, and larger than the six-point spread that existed in polls (again, where the demographic data is available) on the eve of the 2011 election and the seven-point difference between Conservative support among men and women in 2008. More importantly, that variance of eight points is from a lower base, meaning that the gender gap is proportionately even larger.
Whereas in 2008 and 2011 the Conservatives had about 82 to 85 per cent as much support among women as they did men, that proportion has fallen to only 76 per cent (i.e., for every four men supporting the Conservatives, there are only three women).
By contrast, the Liberals have a much smaller gender gap, and have for some time. The divergence is of only one point in recent polls, as it was in 2008. In 2011, the difference was of only two points. Generally speaking, the Liberals usually have about as much support among women as they do among men.
The New Democrats, however, are in a similar bind as the Tories. They have managed more support among women than among men in the past, with the difference measuring between three and five points. Though, in absolute terms, that is a smaller divergence than that suffered by the Conservatives, proportionately it is about the same.
This puts the Conservatives’ emphasis on the new female faces in cabinet in some context. In 2008 and 2011, the polls had the Conservatives at over 30 per cent support among this demographic (and considering how the polls slightly under-estimated the Tories in 2011, the party probably garnered around 36 or 37 per cent support among women in that election). Having dropped to 25 per cent among half the electorate ensures electoral defeat, particularly when the Liberals have a much better balance between male and female voters.
However, perhaps there is less to be concerned about than meets the eye. The average results of the final polls in the 2008 and 2011 campaigns among men matched the final vote tallies among the general population quite closely. But if something like that were repeated in a snap election, the Conservatives would still find themselves tied with the Liberals and miles away from another majority government. And some polls tell a far worse story – the June survey from Forum Research gave the Conservatives a 15-point deficit behind the Liberals among women, while the one by Environics Research Group put Justin Trudeau ahead by three points among men.
If the Conservatives are to have a hope of being re-elected to a majority government in 2015, they will need to make inroads among both men and women, as the party has slipped by some 10 points among the general population since 2011. But the drop among women has been especially steep and problematic for the Tories. A change of tone may go a long way towards rebuilding some of those bridges with women voters, but a shuffle that kept most of the main figures of the government in place and promoted some of the more partisan members of the party to higher office suggest that a substantive change of tone is not yet in the cards.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com .