Maxime Bernier's impact on next election could be big, even if his party isn't
Conservatives have a lot to lose if Bernier is successful in setting up his own party
There's little doubt that Maxime Bernier's decision to leave the Conservatives and form his own party will not help Andrew Scheer win the 2019 federal election.
But just how much will it hurt?
Many Conservatives still remember what it means to be a divided party. The split on the right between the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties helped contribute to Jean Chrétien's three Liberal majority election victories between 1993 and 2000.
The context is entirely different in 2018. Support for the PCs had plummeted during the last years of Brian Mulroney's government and the emergence of the Bloc Québécois gutted the Tories of their base in Quebec. Today, the Conservatives are competitive with Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the polls and are raising enormous amounts of money.
But the potential for Bernier to sap the Conservatives' chances of winning in 2019 are significant, even if the likelihood of Bernier transforming the political landscape to the same extent as Preston Manning did in the 1990s isn't.
It's my party
There's no reason to believe that Bernier can't get a new party off the ground. He was hardly a juggernaut when he launched his bid for the Conservative leadership in 2017, but by the end of it he had raised $2.5 million and came potentially just a few dozen votes away from succeeding Stephen Harper as leader of the Conservative Party.
The experience of that leadership race was a good dry run for starting a party. Bernier's team had to raise money, find volunteers and set up organizations in all 338 of the country's ridings — exactly what Bernier will need to do if he is to mount a serious effort in 2019.
Bernier proved that he wasn't the candidate of one particular region or one particular faction. He did well in both his home province of Quebec and in Alberta, the heartland of Canadian conservatism. He was able to win votes from both "Red Tories" and libertarians.
The Quebec MP has also shown that he can raise money even outside of a leadership campaign, taking in just over a quarter of a million dollars in donations after the race was over. If Bernier can tap into the same circles that funded and staffed his 2017 leadership bid — and remained motivated enough to pay-off his debts once the campaign was over — he will have the raw material for building a serious political apparatus.
Will people feel the Bern-ier?
Even if Bernier is successful in setting up a political party, he may not be successful in garnering lots of support for it. A poll conducted last summer by Abacus Data found that just two per cent of Canadians would vote for a Bernier-led party.
Perhaps things have changed since then — and undoubtedly a slew of polls will soon be published to test that — but the numbers suggest that Bernier himself did not have a significant following among the general population at the time.
But though Bernier might want to follow in the footsteps of Reform and the Bloc Québécois, there are other examples that are less positive precedents for him.
Jean-François Fortin left the Bloc in 2014 to form his own party, Strength in Democracy, that took just 0.1 per cent of the vote in the 2015 federal election. In 1935, the Reconstruction Party captured nine per cent of the vote but only elected its leader, H.H. Stevens, a disgruntled former cabinet minister who split off from R.B. Bennett's Conservative government.
And in the case of the Reform and Bloc, these were parties with regional bases of support that helped them win seats. Bernier's supporters are unlikely to be concentrated in any one region, a big problem in Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system.
The Greens, for example, were unable to win a seat until 2011 despite taking between four and seven per cent of the national vote in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections because their support was spread out across the country.
One party that shares many of Bernier's views — and tried to woo him to take over its leadership last year — does not have any regional base of support. The Libertarians only ran candidates in about one-quarter of Canada's ridings in 2015 and captured an average of one per cent of the vote where they had a name on the ballot.
But whether it was in Western Canada, Ontario or Quebec, the Libertarians had the same level of support and their best performance was just 3.1 per cent of the vote in Scarborough Centre. It's hardly a promising pattern for a libertarian-style party led by Bernier.
Even a bit of Bernier could help the Liberals
The Liberals won't care too much about how many seats Bernier could win, but they will be looking to see how many seats Bernier could prevent Scheer from winning.
The CBC's Poll Tracker, which uses an average of polls to make seat projections, currently gives the Liberals a 48 per cent chance of winning a majority government if an election were held today — a coin flip. But take two points away from the Conservatives and give that to a hypothetical Bernier party, and those Liberal odds increase to 65 per cent, or about two in three.
Increase that Bernier drain to five percentage points and the Liberals' chances of winning a majority government increase to 81 per cent — even with less support nationwide than what was achieved in the 2015 federal election. The chances that the Conservatives emerge with even a minority government in such a scenario drop to virtually nothing.
Of course, Bernier is hoping to be more than a bit player with five per cent of the vote in 2019. The odds are certainly stacked against him, as they are for any small or new party. But Bernier doesn't need to be more than a bit player to have a big impact on the next election.