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Chantal Hébert: Female voters, millennials and Quebecers point to trouble for federal Conservatives

Short of a paradigm shift, Tory Leader Andrew Scheer will continue to see his party struggle to grow its base, Chantal Hébert writes.

A pair of recent polls point to trouble ahead for the Conservative party and its leader, Andrew Scheer, writes Chantal Hebert.

Bruce Campion-Smith / Torstar News Service

A pair of recent polls point to trouble ahead for the Conservative party and its leader, Andrew Scheer, writes Chantal Hebert.

MONTREAL—Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s year may be off to a rough start. Two national polls published back to back this week suggest the official opposition’s fall offensive in the House of Commons has failed to make a lasting dent in the Liberal armour.

A Mainstreet Research poll based on a sample of 3,890 respondents showed Justin Trudeau’s support relatively unchanged from his 2015 victory score.

A Campaign Research poll involving 1,887 participants reported a similar pro-Liberal trend.

With almost two years to go to the next election, no one is going to take federal horse race numbers to the bank. Some polls have shown a softening of Liberal support. A mere eight weeks before Trudeau won a majority in 2015, his party seemed destined for another third-place finish.

On that basis, one could argue — and indeed many do — that it is just a matter of time before the Liberal failings really catch up to Trudeau in voting intentions. But the fine print of the large Mainstreet poll suggests otherwise.

It highlights a trifecta of Conservative limitations that narrow the party’s path back to federal power.

  • Quebec: Mainstreet pegs Trudeau’s lead in Canada’s second-largest province at 24 points with the Conservatives tied for second place with the Bloc Québécois at 18 per cent.

Just last week, Trudeau held a well-attended town hall in Quebec City, an area considered ground zero for Conservative support in the province. There was a time under Jean Chrétien when seniors had to be bussed in from as far as 100 kilometres away to fill a Liberal hall in Quebec’s provincial capital. These days, the crowds are younger, more diverse… and larger.

Paradoxically, the federal Liberal revival in Quebec is taking place against the backdrop of a surge in support for the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Québec provincially. It is hardly the first time that Quebecers tilt in different directions at the provincial and federal levels. Nor is the phenomenon unique to that province.

  • Millennials: They will overtake the baby boomers as Canada’s largest voting cohort in 2019. In the last election, a higher turnout of younger voters was instrumental in the crafting of a Liberal majority. The next federal vote could see a replay of that scenario.

At this juncture, the Conservatives are favourites only among the over-65 age cohort. At the other end of the spectrum, four in 10 voters 18 to 34 years old support the Liberals. The Conservatives attract only one in four. In style as in substance, the party is acting as if that demographical shift were of no consequence to its fortunes.

It is hard to see party ads showcasing Scheer in scenes that could have been pulled from a Father Knows Best TV episode of the late 50s as designed to appeal to the millennial cohort.

The younger strata of voters is one for whom the environment tends to be a ballot box issue while Scheer leads a party that has consistently given those who promote a more activist climate change agenda from within its ranks short shrift.

  • Women: Here again the Conservatives suffer from a potentially crippling deficit in support. In the Mainstreet poll, the party lagged 13 points behind the Liberals among female voters.

Last weekend, thousands of Canadian women took to the streets across the country to march for more inclusion and gender equality. Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh used social media accounts to cheer the movement on. Scheer spent the day tweeting about a hockey game. For the most part, his party has been watching the #metoo debate over workplace sexual harassment from the sidelines.

The structural faults in the foundation of the Conservative coalition are not recent. They pre-date Scheer’s election as leader. Far from filling the gaps in its support, the party under Stephen Harper drove wedges into them.

But as opposed to his predecessor, Scheer should not count on the New Democrats to split the non-Conservative vote in his party’s favour. These days, the federal NDP is at a low ebb in voting intentions.

With every passing year, a higher vote turnout among older voters is less likely to mitigate a relative lack of a following among younger ones.

Short of change in the paradigm of the relationship between the Conservatives, female voters, millennials and/or Quebecers, Scheer could continue to hit his head on a hard ceiling that stands to limit his party’s support to one in three votes.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. 

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