Charest has the edge in Ontario over Conservative leadership rival Poilievre, poll suggests
Pierre Poilievre is the favoured leadership pick among past Conservative voters, Angus Reid Institute says
A new poll released today suggests former Quebec premier Jean Charest has the advantage in the all-important electoral battleground of Ontario over Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, his primary adversary in the Conservative leadership race.
The Angus Reid Institute poll, which surveyed 5,105 Canadians from March 10-15, also found Charest is the favoured candidate among people who've voted Liberal in the past.
These results seem to suggest the former premier is the leadership candidate best placed to pick up disaffected centrist voters in the next federal election campaign — the voters major parties need to reach in order to have a shot at forming the next government.
"Pierre Poilievre has massive amounts of appeal among the existing Conservative base but also among past People's Party voters. Poilievre is really the spirit guide of right-leaning and hard right-leaning voters in this country," Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute (ARI), told CBC News.
"For Jean Charest, what he's getting is side-eye and a second look not only from a majority of past Conservative voters but we also see that two-fifths of past Liberal voters are saying, 'Yeah that guy appeals to me.' So Charest has more potential, more of a path to growth."
While Charest could be in a position to expand the party beyond its traditional base of support, the poll found Poilievre is clearly favoured among current Conservative voters for the top job.
About 54 per cent of survey respondents who voted Conservative in the 2021 federal election said Poilievre was the most appealing candidate, while just 15 per cent said the same of Charest.
Still, a majority of Conservative voters polled told the Angus Reid Institute that they would back Charest as leader. About 80 per cent of the 1,446 past Conservative voters surveyed said they would consider voting for Poilievre if he won the leadership, while 66 per cent said the same of Charest.
The poll found that a Conservative Party led by either Charest or Poilievre would be more attractive to voters: 42 per cent of all respondents said they'd consider voting for the party if it were led by either man — a significant uptick from the party's current standing in many polls.
But Poilievre and Charest would be drawing on different sources of support.
Poilievre has strong appeal among people who voted for the People's Party of Canada (PPC) in the last election, the poll found.
Roughly 74 per cent of poll respondents who voted for the PPC said Poilievre is the most appealing candidate in this leadership race — a percentage 20 points higher than the share of Conservative voters who felt the same way (54 per cent). This suggests Poilievre has the best chance of consolidating the right-wing vote, which was splintered in the last general election.
Charest, meanwhile, has much more appeal among Canadians who did not support the Conservative Party in the September election. About 32 per cent of all 2021 Liberal voters surveyed said Charest was the most appealing Conservative leadership candidate, while just 10 per cent said the same of Poilievre.
Charest bested Poilievre among NDP voters polled as well — 19 per cent of New Democrats said they prefer the former Quebec premier, while 6 per cent said they liked the Conservative MP best.
Poilievre's Prairie strength, Charest's Ontario edge
While Poilievre is the preferred candidate among all surveyed voters in the Prairies, the poll found the more centrist Charest could pick up more voters in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
In Ontario, 46 per cent of respondents said they would consider voting for Charest, compared to 41 per cent who backed Poilievre. In Nova Scotia, 42 per cent of respondents said they'd consider voting for Charest while 36 per cent picked Poilievre. In both B.C. and Quebec, the two candidates were in a virtual tie.
Responding to the question of who they thought would be the most appealing leader of the CPC, 23 per cent of Ontarians said Poilievre while 18 per cent said Charest.
Kurl said Poilievre's outsized popularity in the Prairies — a region of the country where the Conservative Party is already very strong — means a Poilievre-led party might struggle to grow.
"The question is, do Conservative party members stay true and close to what have been current Conservative values? Do they double- and triple-down on those? Or do they take a good, long look at making some tradeoffs and moving to the centre to win the election?" Kurl said.
The Conservative vote was inefficient in the last two federal elections, running up lopsided victories in many ridings in Western Canada while falling short in urban and suburban areas of Ontario and Quebec — densely populated regions that essentially decide which party will form government.
"Charest's five-point advantage in Ontario and his appeal to soft Liberals are key elements in terms of increasing Conservative vote efficiency in future elections," Kurl said.
The poll also suggests Poilievre is the clear favourite among people who voted Conservative in the last federal election.
Only 15 per cent of Conservative-voting respondents said Charest was the most appealing candidate in the field, while 54 per cent picked Poilievre — which suggests the MP enjoys a daunting 40-point lead over his rival. But not all previous Conservative voters are current party members eligible to vote in the September leadership election.
'The campaign is really about two candidates'
Kurl also said there's plenty of time for Charest to make up lost ground.
"These are early days but it certainly shows that the campaign is really about two candidates," she said.
"The question for Poilievre is, can he withstand the narrative that the party has more potential to win under Charest? And can the Charest campaign survive the attacks that he's a faux Conservative and that he's not the real deal?"
ARI's findings are similar to those reported earlier this month by another polling firm, Leger.
In that Leger poll, which surveyed 1,591 people between March 4-6, 15 per cent of all respondents said Poilievre would make the best Conservative leader, while 12 per cent said the same of Charest. Most respondents were undecided.
But among the 358 current Conservatives polled by Leger, Poilievre had 41 per cent support compared to 10 per cent for Charest. This poll was conducted before Peter MacKay announced he wasn't running in the leadership election.
The ARI poll suggests those supporting the two leading candidates have starkly different views about where the next leader should take the party.
Among the 780 people surveyed who said they would consider voting for Charest over others, 83 per cent said the next leader should "move the party more towards the political centre on social issues."
Among the 1,236 respondents who said they were leaning toward Poilievre, 66 per cent they'd rather see the party "continue to be a strong voice for conservatism in Canada."
There's also a regional divide on this question. Strong majorities in B.C. (65 per cent) Ontario (61 per cent), Quebec (68 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (61 per cent) would prefer to see the party move to the centre on social issues, while voters in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba prefer the status quo.
The margin of error associated with the ARI poll was +/- 2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The margin of error associated with the Leger poll was +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
- A previous version of this story said Charest was "the most appealing candidate" for 46 per cent of voters in Ontario. In fact, the numbers were in response to an Angus Reid Institute question asking respondents if they would consider voting for a particular candidate; 46 per cent of respondents in Ontario said they would consider voting for Charest.Mar 23, 2022 4:23 PM ET