'It's not in the bag': Why frontrunner Bernier isn't a lock to win Conservative leadership

After a year of campaigning, Maxime Bernier appears to have outpolled and outfundraised his 12 remaining rivals for the Conservative leadership. It's a great position to be in. But it might not be enough to win on May 27.

'It will be interesting to see how that math plays out,' rival camp says

Kevin O'Leary shook up the Conservative leadership race last month when the presumptive front-runner suddenly dropped out and announced he would endorse his top rival, Maxime Bernier, instead. But Bernier's not a lock to win either. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

After a year of campaigning, Maxime Bernier appears to have out-polled and out-fundraised his 12 remaining rivals for the Conservative leadership.  

He's in a great position. But it might not be enough to win on May 27.

"No, no — it is not in the bag," Bernier said in response to suggestions from the media that the race was his to win after Kevin O'Leary not only dropped out, but endorsed him.

"We have to work."

Front-runners say that. Complacent voters don't turn out for foregone conclusions. Better to motivate supporters with the fear of losing.

But that fear may be legitimate in this race.


Public opinion researchers have tried to predict the outcome by contacting Conservatives off the party's evolving membership list, surveying party donors or tapping people who call themselves Conservatives in national surveys.

But even sampling the final membership list has its difficulties. Several camps say it's missing accurate phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Many eligible voters are unreachable.

"It might be unpollable," said Darell Fowlie, who's working on Lisa Raitt's campaign.

Lisa Raitt's candidacy has been hindered by her lack of French. But the former cabinet minister has strong support in Atlantic Canada and Ontario. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

That might be an unsurprising opinion from a campaign that's behind. And knocking pollsters for their predictions is a familiar political pastime.

But Fowlie has a point. Each constituency carries equal weight, but conducting riding-level polls in all 338 would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"No one's doing that, I can tell you that much," said Michael Diamond, who works on Kellie Leitch's team.

Conservatives who provided their phone numbers have been bombarded with calls from the party, pollsters and rival camps. Some report as many as three or four calls a night. Have some just stopped answering?

Fowlie said he looked into the methodology of one automated poll that had Chris Alexander unusually high, he thought. Candidates were suggested in alphabetical order ("Press 1 for Chris Alexander, Press 2 for Maxime Bernier..."), and he wondered if some respondents just hit one to get off the phone.

The number of eligible voters in this race, over 259,000, significantly exceeded expectations. But the party won't confirm how many memberships each candidate submitted.

Strategists across several campaigns suggest as many as 80,000 signed up independently, meaning they're free agents.

Then there's the 30,000-plus that O'Leary's team claimed to have signed up. Will they follow his suggestion to back Bernier? Or will they just not vote?

Andrew Scheer's camp believes that he'll place second on the first ballot and has the best chance of beating Bernier thanks to his strong second- and third-choice support. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

"Now that this race has been thrown open by his departure, members of the party can now vote with their hearts," said Melanie Paradis, who's working for Erin O'Toole. "They don't have to feel that they have to vote for one particular person that they want to go up against O'Leary."

Rival camps concede that Bernier appeals to many new members. But several feel long-time party members are more likely to vote.

Only one in three cast a vote in the 2004 Conservative leadership race.

"We need to have a higher turnout than last time," Bernier has said.

Early indications of how many ballots have been returned aren't expected until Monday, when officials start opening envelopes and checking voter names off the master list at the Deloitte Canada offices in Vaughan, Ont.

Issues motivate, but polarize

"Certain camps probably have more motivated bases than others," said Chisholm Poitier, a Michael Chong spokesman.

Those backing Chong, Bernier and Leitch, in particular, may turn out for policy or ideological reasons, he said.

"I kind of suspect the bases of all the other camps would have lower turnouts," Poitier said. "I don't sense the enthusiasm or the excitement in some of those camps."

Michael Chong has staked out unique policy ground in the race, including being the only candidate to champion a carbon tax, something Conservatives campaigned against in the past. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Issue-oriented campaigns can be polarizing, however.

"Once you become the focus, people either like it or they don't," Andrew Scheer's strategist Hamish Marshall said. 

Scheer and O'Toole have the most endorsements from caucus members. Their campaigns are seen as friendly to the Conservative establishment.

When the race began last year, party memberships had dropped below 100,000. Newcomers, if they turn out, could outnumber the party's base, and that makes things tough to predict.

Campaigns are using the same kind of voter identification tools parties use in general elections. Scrutineers start tracking who's voted next week.

Kellie Leitch has spent a lot of time talking about a polarizing issue: more screening for newcomers to Canada. While her policy positions could be seen as polarizing, her strategists say they speak to a broad base of Conservative supporters who will be motivated to vote. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Leitch campaign, which originally flagged the 1,351 improper memberships struck by the party last March, says it's committed to making sure no questionable ballots count.

No vote-splitting

"We won't win on the first ballot," Bernier admits. But if he gets more than 35 per cent, he'll be hard to catch.

If he's lower, and someone like Scheer or O'Toole is within striking distance (between five and ten points back), Bernier's in trouble, other camps predict.

Voters can mark up to ten choices, but some may mark only one and become "dead" when their candidate drops off.

If many rounds are required for someone to get a majority, Marshall, from Scheer's camp, predicts the leader may be decided by a small share of the original vote.

Several camps predict overlapping support between Chong, Raitt, O'Toole and possibly Scheer.

O'Toole has said his second choice would be Raitt. Raitt said in one interview she was considering Scheer, but then later said she was not going to endorse a second choice.

"It will be interesting to see how that math plays out, once we get down to the final four ... how those votes start getting redistributed," said Paradis from O'Toole's team.

Erin O'Toole, seen here speaking to the CBC in Whitehorse last week, has emphasized his military background during his campaign. He's popular among current members of the Conservative caucus, but it's hard to say how much that translates into grassroots votes. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

As candidate Brad Trost reminded his supporters in a recent email: "You can't split the vote."

But endorsing a second choice — like Trost has — is like saying you won't win.

Unlike conventions, which can inspire "cult-like" follower behaviour in delegates, it's "silly" to think candidates could direct second choices on confidential mail-in ballots, Leitch organizer Diamond said.

Campaigns must focus now on turning out not just first-choice supporters, but also second and subsequent-choice supporters — but only if those voters' top choices are likely to drop off first.

Don't count out Bernier. But don't count on him, either.


  • This story has been updated from an earlier version that incorrectly suggested Pierre Lemieux had stated a second choice preference in the race. He has not.
    May 14, 2017 10:48 AM ET


Janyce McGregor

Senior reporter

Janyce McGregor joined the CBC's parliamentary bureau in 2001, after starting her career with TVOntario's Studio 2. Her public broadcaster "hat trick" includes casual stints as a news and current affairs producer with the BBC's World Service in London. After two decades of producing roles, she's now a senior reporter filing for CBC Online, Radio and Television. News tips: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca