In Quebec electoral mathematics, it appears that one female leader of a third party is worth more than nine female cabinet ministers.
That's one conclusion to be drawn from results of a Jan.17-27 CROP-La Presse poll published yesterday.
They suggest a "Pauline effect": Since Pauline Marois became its leader last June, the Parti Québécois has closed the "gender gap" between itself and the Liberals in support among women.
Possibly because of the divisiveness of its sovereignty option, the PQ used to be less popular among female voters than the Liberals.
In CROP's last poll for La Presse before the general election last March, 36 per cent of women expressing a party preference chose the Liberals, to 28 per cent for the PQ (then led by André Boisclair) and 21 per cent for Mario Dumont's Action démocratique du Québec.
But now the sovereignty threat has receded since the PQ has been reduced to third-party status, and the PQ has become the first major Quebec party with a female leader.
Possibly as a result, the PQ led in popularity among female voters in the latest CROP-La Presse poll with the support of 36 per cent of womn expressing a party preference, to 31 per cent for the Liberals and 23 per cent for the ADQ.
And when asked to choose the party leader who would make the best premier, women favoured Marois, the choice of 35 per cent, to 29 per cent for Premier Jean Charest and 22 per cent for Dumont.
This is after Charest formed the first Quebec cabinet in which female ministers have parity with men as well as holding such prominent positions as deputy premier, finance minister, treasury board president and education minister.
The loss of the Liberals' advantage among female voters is one reason why, even though CROP's latest political snapshot contains some encouraging news for Charest, he shouldn't get overly excited.
After a fall in which Charest managed to avoid the unforced errors that characterized his first term as premier, CROP has him gaining in personal popularity on Marois and gives him his highest "best-premier" score since before the election.
In the volatile Quebec City area, CROP puts the Liberals in the lead over the other two major parties, though by a statistically insignificant margin.
And for the first time since the Liberals took power in April, 2003, a majority of respondents in a CROP survey expressed satisfaction with the government. Since Liberal support was more than 20 points below the government's satisfaction rating, Charest's party seemed to have considerable growth potential.
But while the government's satisfaction rating is considered the key political indicator between elections, it's not always an accurate predictor of election results; even with a rating over 50 per cent, Bernard Landry's PQ government lost the 2003 election.
Among the francophone voters who usually decide Quebec elections, Liberal support is stuck at only 23 per cent, about the same level as in the election last March.
And the continuing erosion of support for the ADQ, which has lost a net seven points to the PQ since the election, might be a mixed blessing for the Liberals.
Right now, the ADQ is a more direct competitive threat to the Liberals than the PQ is. But the Liberal government survived the last election only because the opposition vote divided more or less evenly between the ADQ and the PQ.
That balance could tip in the PQ's favour if it continues to take back nationalist votes from the ADQ, resulting in the outright defeat of the Liberals next time. Already CROP has projected that the PQ probably would have formed a minority government in an election held during its polling period. And there is evidence that the recent revival of the language issue has helped the PQ, and will continue to do so.
To counter the PQ's gains at the expense of the ADQ, the Liberals also need to take back votes, federalist ones this time, from Dumont's party. The stagnation of Liberal support among francophones suggests that isn't happening yet.
Charest's Liberals are losing the female vote to the PQ despite stacking the cabinet with women