Politics·Analysis

Conservative caucus endorsements hint at generational divide in leadership race

Peter MacKay is getting the backing of older and more experienced MPs, while Erin O'Toole and Leslyn Lewis are attracting the supporting of younger Conservative caucus members.

Conservative MPs backing Peter MacKay are older and more experienced than those supporting Erin O'Toole

Peter MacKay is narrowly ahead of Erin O'Toole in endorsements from Conservative MPs. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole have split the Conservative caucus almost evenly between them, with most MPs endorsing one or the other for the party leadership.

But political allegiance isn't the only thing dividing them. The endorsements also suggest a generation gap between the two candidates.

Ahead of Thursday's English-language debate, MacKay and O'Toole were running almost tied in caucus endorsements.

MacKay, a former cabinet minister and the last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party before it merged with the Canadian Alliance in 2003 to form the modern Conservative Party, had received the backing of 43 Conservative MPs.

O'Toole, an Ontario MP who was briefly a cabinet minister in Stephen Harper's last term in office, had the endorsement of 36 MPs.

Leslyn Lewis, a lawyer from Toronto who ran unsuccessfully for the party in the 2015 federal election, has the backing of six MPs while Derek Sloan, a rookie Ontario MP, has not received a single caucus endorsement.

Regional, gender splits

There are some notable regional variations in the endorsements MacKay, O'Toole and Lewis have received.

Compared to the makeup of the Conservative caucus in the House of Commons, those endorsing MacKay are disproportionately from Ontario and Quebec. O'Toole's are disproportionately from Western Canada, while half of Lewis's caucus supporters are Saskatchewan MPs.

Four female MPs have endorsed MacKay, while three have endorsed Lewis and five have backed O'Toole. There are 22 female Conservative MPs in the House, representing 18 per cent of the party's caucus. Only Lewis has drawn more than 18 per cent of her endorsements from female Conservative MPs.

Some interesting patterns emerge also when you look at who Conservatives endorsed in the 2017 leadership race, which saw O'Toole finish third behind Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier.

Most of MacKay's caucus supporters endorsed someone in the 2017 leadership race. Nearly half of them backed either Scheer or O'Toole, while a smattering endorsed other candidates like Bernier or Lisa Raitt. About a third didn't endorse anyone.

Most of O'Toole's current caucus endorsements come from MPs who didn't back a horse in 2017. In fact, O'Toole actually trails MacKay in caucus endorsements among those who endorsed O'Toole in the last race.

Six Conservative MPs have endorsed Leslyn Lewis for the party leadership. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Four of Lewis's six endorsements also come from people who did not publicly endorse anyone in 2017.

This is one indication of the demographic divide between MacKay, O'Toole and Lewis — which exists in part because a lot of the parliamentarians lining up behind O'Toole and Lewis now weren't MPs three years ago.

Youth vs. experience

In Wednesday's French-language debate, O'Toole drew a contrast between himself and MacKay.

"I am the leader for the future," he said. "Mr. MacKay was the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party 17 years ago. We need a leader for the future, not for the past."

To support that claim, O'Toole said that he has the backing of "all the MPs under the age of 35."

That's not quite right — two of Lewis's supporters are in their early 30s — but O'Toole does have a younger cohort of supporters than MacKay does.

On average, MacKay's endorsers are 54 years old, compared to 50 years old for O'Toole's caucus endorsers. Lewis's six endorsers average 48 years of age.

More significant, however, is the fact that nine of O'Toole's caucus supporters were born after 1980, making them millennials. Only three of MacKay's caucus backers are that young.

But with age comes experience — and that is where MacKay has his rivals beat.

On average, MacKay's caucus endorsers have been elected an average of three times and have been in the House of Commons for 7.3 years. O'Toole's caucus supporters have averaged just 1.8 election wins and 3.1 years in Parliament.

The six MPs who have endorsed Lewis have been in the House for an average of 2.1 years.

Government vs. opposition benches

This big gap between MacKay and O'Toole means that their respective backers have spent their time in Ottawa doing very different things.

Over half of the Conservative MPs endorsing O'Toole were elected in the 2019 federal election and just five took office while the Conservatives were in government. Only two of O'Toole's caucus backers were elected in 2006, when the Conservatives first came to power.

Only a quarter of MacKay's caucus endorsers were elected in the last election. Eleven were there in 2006; a few were even in Parliament when Jean Chrétien or Paul Martin were prime minister. In total, half of MacKay's caucus supporters have experience on the government side of the House.

MacKay also has received significantly more support than O'Toole from former MPs, some of whom can trace their political lineage back to Brian Mulroney.

Something old, something new and something blue

There are a number of ways to interpret this data.

On the one hand, MacKay has the support of Conservatives with deep roots in the party, lots of experience in government and plenty of election victories under their belts. They know how to win, how to govern and have seen MacKay in action.

O'Toole and Lewis have received the support of political neophytes who only know how to be in opposition. A significant number who backed O'Toole in 2017 aren't doing it again this time — a potential red flag.

On the other hand, O'Toole has the support of the next generation of Conservatives, people who might understand better what it will take to win in the future. Many of them recently have had to fight for nominations in their ridings, meaning they have close ties with active members. This younger cohort has passed on MacKay, who is leaning on an older establishment and people whose experience largely lies with a government that was rejected five years ago.

There isn't any real generational difference between the two men themselves, of course. MacKay is 54 and O'Toole is 47. (Scheer, the man they are hoping to replace, is only 41 years old. Lewis is 49 and Sloan is 35 years old.)

In addition, MacKay has emphasized how the Conservatives need to modernize just as much as O'Toole has highlighted his more youthful support.

Nevertheless, they are attracting different kinds of Conservatives to their banners. When it's all over, the next leader will have to bring the old and the new back together.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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