Calgary·Opinion

Rachel Notley, Danielle Smith and Alberta's huge political gender gap

Women are far more likely to back NDP than UCP this year, while men are split. Poll numbers show how much leadership matters on this.

Of the two women running for premier, the rest of Alberta women clearly know which one they prefer

Two women appear side-by-side in closeups.
Notley versus Smith. Next May will mark the second time in Alberta's history two women were front-runners in a provincial election. In 2012, Danielle Smith led the Wildrose Party against Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives. Redford won. (Codie McLachlan/The Canadian Press, Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: CBC News and The Road Ahead commissioned this public opinion research in mid-October, starting six days after Danielle Smith won the leadership of the United Conservative Party.

As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time. 

This opinion piece, based on its findings, is by Melanee Thomas, a political scientist and academic advisor to this research project.

In about six months, two powerhouse female politicians will go head to head to decide who will lead the province for the next four years. Alberta's women will play a large role in determining whether it's four more years of UCP rule or a return to Rachel Notley and the NDP.

Already, you see both political parties positioning themselves in hopes of courting women voters. The NDP has focused its  recent messaging on affordability, health care and economic diversification. And fresh off her byelection win, Premier Danielle Smith has promised to ease waits for hospital access and pledged billions to combat the rising costs of living.

Some political watchers argue Smith's most viable path to victory relies on attracting suburban women to vote for her party.

But — and it's a big problem for the governing UCP — women in Alberta are way, way more likely to support the NDP than are men. 

This might not be a great surprise, given that results from the most recent CBC/Road Ahead survey show that the NDP would beat the UCP if an election were held today.

Even so, the difference between women and men is striking: 51 per cent of women would vote NDP, compared to 43 per cent of men. That eight-point gap is on par with some of the estimates of women's distaste for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election

Men are more likely than women to vote UCP. Forty-one per cent of men and 35 per cent of women say they would vote for Smith's party if an election was held today. 

This phenomenon of women being more willing to support parties on the left, and men parties to the right, is known in the research as a modern gender gap.

This doesn't mean that conservative women or left-leaning men don't exist. While women and men are both diverse groups, they still differ systematically from one another. 

Why women like the NDP

Past research provides clues on this. In Canada, women tend to be less socially conservative and more skeptical of market conservatism (like deregulation, privatization, and lower taxes) than men. 

Other political science research suggests that women's greater support of progressive parties stems from self-interest. In 2021, nearly one-third of Alberta women worked in the public sector, compared to nearly one-seventh of men. Women are also significantly more likely to be responsible for caring for children and elderly relatives.

This puts women in closer contact with health care and education, potentially making problems in those areas more salient for women. 

Values and beliefs matter 

Studies that explain how and why people vote highlight core values and beliefs. These include how people think the economy should work, how important they think equality is, and whether they identify with the left or the right. These factors have consistent effects on whom someone chooses to vote for. 

Though most Albertans are pretty moderate, men are more likely than women to identify with the political right. Asked in the CBC News poll to place themselves on a scale of 0 (left) to 10 (right), men averaged 5.7 and women averaged 5.1.

What matters more is how women and men differ on views about the economy. While nearly half (48 per cent) of men agree the government should stay out of job creation, and that everyone, including the poor, benefit when businesses make a lot of money, only 34 per cent of women say the same things.

Why might this matter? In Canada, parties on the political right (e.g., the UCP) own the economic views men seem to prefer. Parties on the left, like the NDP, are more associated with social programs and diversity. 

While most Albertans think that more needs to be done to promote equality, immigration, and to support Indigenous peoples, women (66 per cent) are more supportive of this than are men (62 per cent). 

Leaders matter

Where values and beliefs are stable, other factors like leadership are obviously not. Arguably, then-premier Jason Kenney was forced out of his job because of skepticism he could lead the UCP to re-election victory. 

People rate leaders against each other, based on perceptions of their character and competence. While Canadians like leaders they think are smart, research suggests that perceiving leaders are good people matters more. 

Within this, women and men still perceive leaders differently. Men remember Jason Kenney's time in office more fondly than do women. Women are significantly more likely to think that Notley did a better job as premier than men do — although both genders now approve more highly of Notley's premiership than her successor's. 

Similarly, women and men agree that they like Rachel Notley more than Danielle Smith. Yet, men like Smith more than women do, and women like Notley much more.

Part of this is because women and men disagree about whether Alberta is on the right or wrong track. For example, women and men agree the government of Alberta isn't doing a great job of getting pipelines built. But that's about it.

Men are much more likely than women to think the province is on the right track about the economy (+16 percentage points), the budget (+14), job creation (+11), health care (+11), K-12 education (+11), post-secondary education (+10), crime (+10), and honesty (+7). 

A group of people stand on steps behind a podium and microphone.
Danielle Smith walks among her cabinet ministers in October. She selected four women in the 26-member team, creating the biggest gender imbalance for an Alberta cabinet since 2006. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The striking thing? These right/wrong track differences are not enough to explain the ratings given by women to Smith and Notley now, and to Notley and Kenney in the past. It's not clear from the data why that is the case, but my hypothesis is that it's partisanship — an emotional connection someone feels to a political party that leads someone to see that party more positively, and others more negatively. 

When all of these factors are considered, then, it is perhaps less surprising that there is such a large gender gap in vote intention in Alberta right now.

The more interesting question, then, becomes whether the NDP will be able to hold onto women's support while persuading more men to vote for them, and if the UCP has enough time to entice enough women that have appeared to have soured on Smith's party to come back to them next May.


The CBC News random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between Oct. 12 and 30, 2022, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative of regional, age and gender factors. The margin of error is +/- 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online. Trend Research contacted people using a random list of numbers, consisting of half landlines and half cellphone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialed up to five times at five different times of day before another telephone number was added to the sample. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e. residential and personal) was 16.3 per cent.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this article cited poll results on voting intention that included undecided voters, and did not correspond with the graphic.
    Nov 28, 2022 9:28 AM MT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Melanee Thomas

Associate professor of political science

Melanee Thomas is an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. She consulted with pollster Janet Brown in the design of the CBC's 2022 Road Ahead poll and the interpretation of resulting data.

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