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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff (MARK BLINCH/Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff (MARK BLINCH/Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Michael Valpy

Women and Ignatieff: What went wrong? Add to ...

Dubbed a cerebral sex symbol when he entered politics, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff now faces a wall in his appeal to women. They don't much like him.

The issue is hugely significant for his party, which historically has enjoyed high levels of women's support. Ignatieff predecessors such as Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien held 20-point leads in the polls with women over their Conservative opponents.

But Monday's Strategic Counsel poll shows women age 35 and over - and particularly women age 50 and over - have rejected the Liberals in droves in the past six months.

As for the issue of leadership, a summertime poll indicated women had the same lack of interest in Mr. Ignatieff as they do in Prime Minister Stephen Harper, even though women are inclined to vote left of centre and Mr. Harper has been labelled the most right-of-centre national party leader in modern Canadian history.

Only 30 per cent of women favoured each leader and a plurality liked neither.

I really want to like him. I really want to get excited about him as a leader, but he's not giving me much to work with. Calgary businesswoman Anette Ceraficki

Party leaders have a big impact on how people vote; thus if Mr. Ignatieff had a more positive connection with women voters, Canadian politics might be wearing a different face. But whether it's his media image or his party's step to the right, women aren't warming to him, something the Liberals acknowledge.

"Reaching out to our traditional base of women voters is a priority," said a high-ranking party source. "Hence you can expect to see a focus on women in the [next election]platform."

The Liberals are on track for women - many of them prominent community members - to comprise one-third of their candidates in the next election campaign. But that's not going to help them: Women tend to vote for men.

"The relevant question," said the party source, "is not current level of support from women but rather the extent to which women are open to being persuaded by a campaign. We have huge room for growth and will be orienting our efforts to achieving a broader and deeper level of commitment from women to the Liberal agenda."

Which is as positive a way of putting things as words can produce. Whether it will help Mr. Ignatieff is moot.

When he was host of BBC Two's The Late Show in the 1990s, Mr. Ignatieff was called the thinking woman's crumpet.

But interviews with Canadian women voters - businesswomen, academics, writers, PhD students in their 20s and 30s - elicited words well removed from crumpet. They called him stuffy, drab, arrogant, inauthentic, paternalistic, unmemorable, unsexy and, most of all, untrustworthy.

Toronto author Patricia Pearson, the granddaughter of former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson who wrote Mr. Ignatieff into her 2003 comic novel Playing House as a smouldering bodice-ripper, says he appears totally out of place as a politician.

"He is so palpably uncomfortable in this role and I think that's the source of the turnoff," she said. "Did you see that political commercial of him standing in a meadow or something bucolic? It just made me laugh so hard. He looks like he has heartburn."

Megan Campbell, 55, a senior university administrator in Toronto, described Mr. Ignatieff's "thing in the forest" as unfortunate and lacking in authenticity. She compared him unfavorably to Mr. Trudeau, whose emergence into politics "seemed very real and rang true."

Sarah Knudson, from Vancouver, a doctoral candidate in sociology, said: "For me, it is more Ignatieff the person than Ignatieff the ensemble of ideological and policy perspectives that turns me off. I do not see him as a trustworthy person. He is intelligent but has crossed over into arrogance - so unsexy. The Ignatieff persona does not appeal to me, and I am a woman."

Heather Andres from Winnipeg, a doctoral candidate in atmospheric physics, said she lost trust in Mr. Ignatieff when she found out he originally supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He hasn't said anything since, she said, that has made her change her mind.

"And I don't find his appearance memorable," she added. "He looks just like another business person or another academic or another politician. I guess that suggests I'm still not very familiar with him. My brain doesn't recognize him."

Calgary businesswoman Anette Ceraficki, 44, said of him: "I really want to like him. I really want to get excited about him as a leader, but he's not giving me much to work with.

"When you see him in public, he's surrounded by men in grey suits. He's not supposed to be one of those guys. I like to think of the parallel being Obama. This is my dream. He's got women all around him, smart, strong women."

Which is ironic. Because one of those smart strong Obama women is a close Ignatieff chum: former Harvard professor Samantha Power, who has spoken glowingly of Mr. Ignatieff as a fun guy to talk with - about politics, baseball, her romantic life - over a glass of wine.

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