Polls, endorsements and money: measuring the Tory leadership race

In the early days of the Conservative leadership race, it can be difficult to judge where the six contestants stand. But three metrics give us a clue, and they tell us there is no front-runner just yet.

Tony Clement is ahead in polls, Maxime Bernier in endorsements and Kellie Leitch in money

Conservative leadership contestants (from left to right): Brad Trost, Kellie Leitch, Maxime Bernier, Tony Clement, Michael Chong, Deepak Obhrai.

Leadership races can be like looking through a pane of frosted glass. We might be able to see the vague outlines of what is on the other side and can make out some movement, but we don't know for certain what we're looking at until the window is thrown open — and the ballots are counted.

But there are a few metrics that can help clarify things for observers. In the Conservative leadership race, which will come to an end in May 2017, these metrics are beginning to come into view.

Six contestants are in the running to take over the Conservative Party of Canada: Ontario MPs Kellie Leitch, Michael Chong and Tony Clement, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, Alberta MP Deepak Obhrai, and Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost.

(Obhrai and Trost have stated their intentions to run and Trost has launched a leadership website, but they have yet to be recognized as officially registered candidates by the Conservative Party.)

Because of their relatively low profiles, it is difficult to rank these contestants at this point in the campaign. (Clement is the only one to hold significant cabinet posts throughout the entirety of the Harper government, although Bernier, Leitch and Chong were each in cabinet for periods of time.) But we can measure them according to three metrics: fundraising, endorsements and polls.

Clement, Bernier have early poll lead

Canadian leadership races cannot be polled like American primaries. South of the border, millions of party supporters cast a ballot during the nomination campaign and it is relatively straightforward to gauge voting intentions. In Canada, however, party leaderships are decided by just tens of thousands of party members. Without access to a contact list, it is impossible to poll these members easily.

Instead, polls in Canada tend to look at how party supporters would vote if they had the chance. But this can only hint at the parameters of a leadership campaign; it cannot predict the outcome with any sort of confidence.

The polls do, however, provide an indication of who party supporters want as their leader. This is a signal that might be picked up by party members, particularly if electability is a decisive factor. Party supporters might also act as a rough (at times very rough) proxy for how party members think.The first survey including only the names of official candidates was published this week by Forum Research. (Trost, who launched his bid on Tuesday, was not included.)

The poll found Tony Clement was the favourite choice of Conservative voters with 18 per cent. Maxime Bernier ranked second with 10 per cent, followed by five per cent for Michael Chong, four per cent for Kellie Leitch and three per cent for Deepak Obhrai.

But most Conservative supporters are either undecided or holding off in making their pick. Fully 34 per cent, when presented with the list of contestants, said "someone else" would be better for the job.

Bernier, Chong lead in (the few) endorsements

The endorsements of leadership contestants by elected and formerly elected officials often provide a strong indication of contestants' strength. This isn't just because an endorsement can encourage other party members to come on board, but also because an endorsement is not made lightly.

Elected office holders have some influence within a party — and some political capital to spend. They are unlikely to spend that capital on a candidate they feel is not right for the job. And being a plugged-in member of the party, they are also unlikely to endorse a candidate they perceive to lack the internal support to win. In a sense, endorsements are an informal betting market involving bettors with some skin in the game.

Many Conservatives appear to be waiting to make an endorsement to see who else will throw their hat into the ring. And at least two of the campaigns say they have endorsements to announce in the future.

But so far, Bernier is ahead on this metric. He has the support of two members of caucus (Jacques Gourde and Alex Nuttall) along with former MP (and former interim Canadian Alliance leader) John Reynolds. In addition, Saskatchewan MLA Laura Ross is backing the Quebec MP.

Chong has four endorsements as well, though two of them are from former MPs (Chungsen Leung and Mike Wallace). Fellow caucus member Peter Kent has endorsed Chong, along with Ontario MPP Ted Arnott.

Both Clement and Obhrai have the support of at least two former office-holders. Clement has been publicly backed by former MP Brad Butt and former Alberta MLA Gary Mar, while Obhrai has been endorsed by former MPs Corneliu Chisu and Julian Fantino.

So far, Leitch has only one public endorsement, former MP Ronald Atkey, and Trost has none.

Leitch leads the money race

The last metric is likely the most important. The contestant who raises the most money often wins — in fact, fundraising correlates very closely with final results.

Leitch leads the way in fundraising. According to Elections Canada data, she raised almost $235,000 between April and June, or nearly two-thirds of every dollar raised in the race over that period. 

Chong followed with just under $85,000 and Bernier with about $57,000. However, unlike Leitch and Bernier (who launched their campaigns in early April), Chong only began his bid half-way through the reporting period.

Clement and Obhrai launched their campaigns in July and Trost this week. Fundraising data for July to September will be published in the fall.

The waiting game

These three metrics give us an indication of where things stand in the race so far.

The polls suggest that Clement has the most name recognition among a list of relative unknowns. This might give him the edge going forward if no higher-profile candidate emerges. Bernier, who has been making policy announcements regularly, has also made an impression on Conservative supporters.

That Bernier and Chong have the most endorsements so far highlights the extent to which these two have clearly laid out their plans for the party. They have been able to attract backers as they have presented something to back.

But Bernier's support seems to be geographically broader. While he has backers from Ontario and the West, along with his native Quebec, all four of Chong's endorsers come from the same part of Ontario that he represents.

That said, most Conservatives seem to see no reason to show their hands yet, as the roster of contestants remains incomplete.

The fundraising data is also incomplete, as we don't have any indication of Clement or Obhrai's strength and only partial numbers for Chong. But Leitch's significant early edge on this metric shows she has the best organization to date. This makes her a candidate who can't be overlooked.

Nevertheless, with about $376,000 raised in the second quarter of the year among three contestants in a campaign with a $5 million individual spending limit — and 97 per cent of Conservative MPs yet to endorse a contestant — it appears most Conservatives are keeping their powder dry for now.

The Pollcast: Handicapping the Tory race

After Tony Clement became the fourth contestant in the race, The Pollcast podcast host Éric Grenier was joined by Conservative insiders Tim Powers and Chad Rogers to break down the state of the Conservative leadership campaign.
Jason Kenney out. Tony Clement in. Tim Powers from Summa Strategies and Chad Rogers from Crestview Strategy are back to discuss the latest developments of the Conservative race. 15:42

The poll by Forum Research, published by the Hill Times, was conducted on August 6, 2016, interviewing 1,345 adult Canadians, including 406 Conservative supporters, via interactive voice response. For the sample of Conservative supporters, a probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 4.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20.


  • This article has been edited to make it clear that while Tony Clement is the only contestant to have been in cabinet for all of the Harper government's tenure, Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch and Michael Chong all held cabinet portfolios for part of that government. It has also been updated to note that Deepak Obhrai and Brad Trost are not yet listed as official candidates by the party.
    Aug 17, 2016 9:14 AM ET

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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