Crowded Ontario field could have big impact on Conservative leadership race

In the Conservative leadership race, a preferential ballot and equally weighted ridings could benefit candidates with a strong regional base — to the disadvantage of the cluttered field of contestants from Ontario.

Andrew Scheer, Maxime Bernier and Lisa Raitt could benefit from long list of Ontario candidates

Potential and official Conservative leadership candidates Lisa Raitt, Andrew Scheer, and Maxime Bernier could count on strong regional support.

Add another name to the list. Andrew Scheer, former Speaker of the House of Commons and a sitting MP from Saskatchewan, is expected to make his candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership official today.

By the time the first debate is held in November, the number of contenders joining Scheer on the stage — including those now in the race, those about to make it official and those seriously mulling a bid — could number more than a dozen.

In addition to that crowded field, the rules of the leadership vote may help produce some unpredictable results, particularly when so many candidates are likely to hail from one province: Ontario.

Members of the Conservative Party will vote for their next leader in May, but not every vote will carry the same weight. Instead, each riding in the country will be worth 100 points, regardless of whether that riding has 150 members or 1,500.

Additionally, the party will be using a preferential ballot on which members rank their choices. Contestants with the least amount of support will be eliminated and their votes redistributed according to how their supporters ranked the remaining contestants.

The Liberals used a similar system in their leadership vote in 2013. But with Justin Trudeau taking 79 per cent of all ballots cast, the intricacies of the voting method had no impact on the outcome. That is unlikely to be the case this time.

As votes will be distributed on a regional basis, contestants with regional blocs of support could have an advantage. The 78 ridings in Quebec, for instance, will carry more than double the weight of the 34 ridings in Alberta, though there will likely be many more voting members in Alberta.

Making a play for ridings in places like Quebec may pay big dividends at low cost. Wooing a riding of 1,000 voters takes time and money — each member there is worth only a tenth of a vote. It is much simpler to go after ridings with only 100 members, where each person is worth a full vote.

Regional bases

The current lineup of official, declared and pending candidacies suggests that a few contestants may be able to separate themselves from the pack based on geography alone.

Though not all members will vote for their local candidate, that regional connection can help deliver votes. In the 2004 Conservative leadership campaign, Stephen Harper's strongest support came from his home region of Western Canada. In the 2013 Liberal vote, the only ridings won by B.C. MP Joyce Murray in her second-place showing (and the only ones lost by Trudeau) were in British Columbia.

Additionally, contestants with relatively low national profiles, like those currently in the running, are unlikely to have large national networks within the party to draw upon at first — making their regional connections all the more important.

The locations of the ridings represented by current and former Conservative MPs who are running or may run for the party's leadership.

Quebec MPs Maxime Bernier, who has officially registered in the race, and Steven Blaney, who stepped down from his critic's role in the Conservative Opposition last week (a prerequisite for running for the leadership), may be able to corner the vote in Quebec. The preferential ballot may benefit these two as well, if many Quebec Conservatives rank them as their top two choices.

The 32 ridings in Atlantic Canada — where the Conservatives do not have a single MP — could be Lisa Raitt's to lose if she decides to run. Though she represents an Ontario riding, Raitt was born and raised in Cape Breton and could be the only contestant in the race with significant Atlantic Canada roots.

Scheer could be the favourite in the West. Though Brad Trost, who like Scheer is a Saskatchewan MP, and Deepak Obhrai, an Alberta MP, are in the running as well, neither is likely to mount much of a challenge to Scheer as the candidate of Western Conservatives.

Divided field in Ontario

While Scheer, Raitt and Bernier/Blaney might be able count on a regional bloc of support to get them past the early rounds on the preferential ballot, a crowded field could make things complicated for the Ontario-based contestants.

Currently, three Conservative MPs from Ontario are officially registered as candidates for the leadership: Michael Chong, Tony Clement and Kellie Leitch. Raitt and fellow Ontario MP Erin O'Toole could also jump in the race, while former Ontario MPs Pierre Lemieux and Chris Alexander have expressed interest in running.

There is a danger that these seven candidates — if they all enter the race and stay in it until the end — would cut into each other's potential for an Ontario base, particularly since all but Lemieux are from the same corner of the province.

A recent poll by Mainstreet Research of Conservative supporters (not necessarily members) in Ontario was a demonstration of that danger. It put Leitch and Clement at the top of the list with 12 per cent support apiece, followed by O'Toole at 11 per cent, Chong at nine per cent and Raitt at three per cent. 

This is where the preferential ballot could come into play. If these sorts of numbers were repeated on the first ballot in May, the Ontario candidates may find themselves near the bottom of the rankings, while candidates like Bernier, Scheer and Raitt (thanks to Atlantic Canada) use their regional support bases to push them higher to the top.

The result could be that a candidate with the potential for broader support nationwide among second and third choices could find themselves below regionally stronger candidates on the first ballot — and eliminated early on.

Nevertheless, an Ontario candidate could still have an advantage due to the preferential ballot, once their fellow Ontarians drop off.

But she or he would first need to get over the hurdle of the early, Ontario-cluttered ballots. In a divided field, who that would be could prove unpredictable.

That's if the number of candidates in May 2017 is as long as it will be in November 2016.

It is almost inevitable that some candidates will drop out of the race. But with the greater potential of a lower-ranked candidate winning on the last ballot — as Stéphane Dion did in 2006, or Dalton McGuinty in 1996, (in delegated conventions) — sticking it out until the bitter end may prove to be a smart idea.

What will give candidates an edge over their opponents? 2:58

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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