Kevin O'Leary's Conservative leadership rivals struggle to raise profiles

The next leader of the Conservative Party could be an unknown to most Canadians — if it isn't Kevin O'Leary.

O'Leary best known, but his opponents are among lowest-profile leadership contestants in recent history

A majority of Canadians are familiar with Kevin O'Leary, polls suggest, which sets him apart from his largely unknown rivals. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

If Kevin O'Leary does not win the Conservative leadership race in May, polls suggest most Canadians will have just one question after someone else is announced as the party's next leader.


Abacus Data recently polled Canadians on their views of some of the leading candidates for the party's top job. It found that a majority of Canadians either had no strong opinion or no opinion at all about Maxime Bernier, Lisa Raitt, Kellie Leitch and Andrew Scheer.

O'Leary was much better known — just 21 per cent of Canadians had no opinion of him and another 20 per cent were neutral (by a margin of more than two to one, more Canadians had a negative rather than positive impression of the businessman and television personality).

Almost half, or 48 per cent, didn't have an opinion on Bernier, while 51 per cent were unsure of Leitch, 55 per cent of Raitt and 66 per cent of Scheer. 

That the field of 14 leadership contestants is largely unknown to Canadians is not new. But the poll suggests that Canadians are getting no more familiar with some of the leading contenders as the campaign rolls on.

Candidate profiles remain low

Compared with Abacus's last poll in December, familiarity with O'Leary increased, as more Canadians said they had a negative view of him.

But Canadians have learned little more about the other candidates over the last two months. The proportion of Canadians who were neutral or had no opinion of Leitch dropped by just five points to a combined 72 per cent. It was unchanged for Bernier at 74 per cent and actually increased by one point for both Raitt and Scheer to 81 and 90 per cent respectively.

A recent Global News/Ipsos poll suggests that "neutral" opinions might be an indication of low familiarity — for instance, Ipsos found that 50 per cent of respondents had never heard of Bernier, while 24 per cent had only heard his name, almost identical to Abacus's results for "don't know" (48 per cent) and "neutral" (26 per cent) for the Quebec MP.

This pattern held for the other candidates (with the exception of Leitch, who was better known in the Abacus survey).

Conservative Party leadership candidates pose for a group photo before the Montreal debate: (left to right) Kevin O'Leary, Andrew Saxton, Andrew Sheer, Rick Petterson, Chris Alexander, Michael Chong, Lisa Raitt, Kellie Leitch, Maxime Bernier and Steven Blaney. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Ipsos also tested respondents' awareness of the candidates not included in Abacus's survey. The proportion unfamiliar with Chris Alexander, Steven Blaney, Michael Chong, Pierre Lemieux, Deepak Obhrai, Erin O'Toole, Rick Peterson, Andrew Saxton and Brad Trost ranged from 86 to 93 per cent.

As with the Abacus poll, a majority of respondents knew enough about O'Leary to form an opinion of him. But O'Leary's profile does have its limits: he was unknown to 81 per cent of Quebecers in the Ipsos poll.

It might also be possible to overstate O'Leary's social media reach. With over 625,000 Twitter followers, O'Leary's audience dwarfs those of his rivals, none of whom have more than 25,000 followers. But according to Twitter Canada, just 24 per cent of O'Leary's followers are Canadians.

O'Leary better known than were Harper, Mulcair

When Stephen Harper was vying for the Conservative Party's leadership in 2004, an Ipsos poll found that 55 per cent of Canadians didn't know enough about him to form an impression — despite Harper having then been leader of the Canadian Alliance for nearly two years.

Still, that score would have put Harper ahead of all but O'Leary in today's leadership race. But O'Leary's celebrity is still less than Justin Trudeau's was in 2013. An Angus Reid survey found just 30 per cent of Canadians were unfamiliar with him when he ran for the Liberal Party leadership that year.

With the exception of Trudeau, O'Leary is one of the best-known personalities to recently contend for a party's top job — more people are familiar with him today (58 or 59 per cent in the Abacus and Ipsos polls) than they were with Marc Garneau in the Liberals' 2013 campaign (42 per cent), Tom Mulcair in the NDP's 2012 race (36 per cent), Belinda Stronach in the Conservatives' 2004 contest (31 per cent) or Peter MacKay in the Progressive Conservatives' 2003 vote (30 per cent).

Bernier, others among least known

But O'Leary's opponents are at the other end of the scale. If Bernier prevails, he would be one of the least-known winners in recent history. He is about as well known as Paul Dewar and less known than Brian Topp were when they failed to take the NDP's top prize in 2012.

Raitt and Leitch are about on par with names like Tony Clement in 2004, Peggy Nash in 2012 and Martin Cauchon in 2013.

Other leading contenders like O'Toole, Chong or Scheer are among the least-known leadership candidates in recent years, ranking alongside Martin Singh in 2012 and Deborah Coyne in 2013 — candidates familiar only to political trivia buffs.

So O'Leary's bid for the Conservative leadership race (a celebrity competing against a field of largely unknown candidates) has much in common with Trudeau's 2013 run. But unlike that campaign, O'Leary is not the prohibitive favourite.

And that means someone who most Canadians have still never heard of could be the next leader of the Conservative Party.

The poll by Abacus Data was conducted between Feb. 10 and 16, 2017, interviewing 4,173 Canadian adults via the internet. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The poll by Global News/Ipsos was conducted between Jan. 23 and 25, 2017, interviewing 1,000 Canadian adults via the internet. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.


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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