Erin O'Toole courted the right of the Conservative Party and won

Social conservatives propelled Erin O'Toole past Peter MacKay, who came up short where he was supposed to be strong.

But now the new leader of the Conservatives has to introduce himself to Canadians

Newly-minted Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, left, was able to surpass and defeat Peter MacKay, second from right, thanks to the second- and third-choice support of social conservative members who voted for Leslyn Lewis (shaking hands with O'Toole) and Derek Sloan. (Sean Kilpatrick/Pool via Reuters)

Early in the Conservative leadership race, Erin O'Toole identified an opening to Peter MacKay's right.

It presented a narrow path to victory for him — particularly for a candidate who had run as a consensus-building moderate in 2017's contest — but it was his best shot at winning.

And it worked.

With the help of social conservative members and the backing of most Conservatives in every part of the country except the Maritimes, O'Toole won an emphatic victory over MacKay early Monday morning. He captured 59 per cent of the vote and 57 per cent of the weighted points up for grabs.

It was clear from the first ballot that O'Toole was in a strong position.

The target for MacKay to hit was at least 40 per cent on the first ballot, close enough to the majority threshold that he could hold off O'Toole as the Ontario MP picked up most of the second- and third-choice support of members who voted for Derek Sloan or Leslyn Lewis. 

But MacKay only dominated in his native Nova Scotia, winning barely a majority of the points at stake in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick and falling short of 50 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador. Quebec, where he was also expected to rack up points, went to O'Toole by a margin of 11 percentage points on the first ballot.

Lower results in the Conservative heartland — MacKay was third in Alberta and fourth in Saskatchewan, where Lewis finished first — meant that MacKay had only 33.5 per cent of points nationwide on the first ballot. O'Toole, with 31.6 per cent, was within striking distance.

In the second round, nearly two-thirds of Sloan's votes went to Lewis, a fellow social conservative. It was enough to propel her to first place in the popular vote, but only third in points. With about 21 per cent of Sloan's ballots, O'Toole was able to narrowly move ahead of MacKay on points after the second ballot.

While about a third of ballots belonging to Lewis were discarded after the second round — these members did not rank either O'Toole or MacKay on their ballot — those who did choose between the two remaining candidates went to O'Toole by a margin of nearly four-to-one, sealing his victory.

(The Canadian Press)

Social conservative strength

The role of the social conservative vote has been decisive in a number of recent leadership races. Andrew Scheer would not have defeated Maxime Bernier in 2017 without the backing of Conservative members who supported Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost earlier in that contest's voting. It isn't a coincidence that a lot of the same people who worked on those two campaigns were involved with the Sloan and Lewis campaigns this time.

Doug Ford, who beat Christine Elliott in the 2018 Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership, also owed his victory to social conservative candidate Tanya Granic Allen, who backed Sloan in this race.

The support that Lewis built in this campaign — and the voters O'Toole courted — will be difficult to ignore. Lewis raised about $2 million and, after Sloan's elimination, had more raw votes than either O'Toole or MacKay on the second ballot. She was the top choice on that ballot across Western Canada, while MacKay was ahead in Ontario, Atlantic Canada and the North. After that second ballot, O'Toole was only leading in Quebec. 

Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis led the popular vote after the second round of voting, but was third in points. Her supporters went to O'Toole over MacKay by a margin of nearly four-to-one when she was eliminated. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

But after his third ballot win, O'Toole takes over a party with a membership that is not nearly as divided as it was in 2017.

With about 90,000 ballots on the final round, he won a majority of the initial 174,000 cast — something Scheer did not do three years ago. Both Western Canada, the base of the Conservative Party, and Ontario and Quebec, where the party needs to grow to form government, backed O'Toole.

MacKay has no seat in the House of Commons and, unlike runner-up Bernier in 2017, is unlikely to branch off to form his own party. O'Toole has no rival in Ottawa.

Erin who?

"Good morning," the Ontario MP said after taking the stage well after midnight, "I'm Erin O'Toole."

It's an introduction he might have to get used to making.

As it was with Joe Clark in 1976 or Andrew Scheer in 2017, most Canadians will be waking up Monday wondering who this new Conservative leader is.

A survey by Ipsos for Global News conducted a few days before the leadership vote found that 68 per cent of Canadians did not know enough about O'Toole to form an opinion of him, nearly 20 points higher than the better-known MacKay. Even a majority of Conservative voters weren't familiar with the man who was to become their new leader.

That means O'Toole has to introduce himself to Canadians. That's both an opportunity and a vulnerability — first impressions don't always go well.

Watch | 'Good morning. I'm Erin O'Toole': In first speech as leader, O'Toole introduces himself to Canadians

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Featured Video"To the Canadians I'm meeting for the first time. Good morning. I'm Erin O'Toole." O'Toole delivers first speech after winning Conservative leadership.

The lack of name recognition also means that the Conservatives are unlikely to receive an immediate boost in the polls. Ipsos found that just 35 per cent of Canadians would consider voting Conservative with O'Toole at the helm, little better than the 34 per cent of the vote the party actually captured in the 2019 federal election. A recent poll by Léger for the Association for Canadian Studies found that an O'Toole-led party would get 26 per cent of the vote, three points lower than the Conservatives got without a party leader being named.

So, O'Toole has some work ahead of him.

Scheer was also largely unknown in 2017 and became hardly better known two years later, when voters discovered they didn't quite like the main alternative to Justin Trudeau's Liberals. With a minority government in Ottawa facing a confidence vote in the fall, O'Toole is unlikely to get as many as two years to introduce himself to Canadians. He'll be lucky to get one.

Heading into the leadership vote, the Conservatives trailed the Liberals in the polls. A new, largely-unknown leader probably won't change that in the short-term and O'Toole will face some challenges appealing to a broader electorate that is far less conservative than the membership that made him leader.

But, after starting this contest as an unlikely challenger and ending it with a clear victory, O'Toole shouldn't be under-estimated.


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.