Conservative base solid, but growth needed to challenge Liberals

Conservatives meeting in Halifax have some positive numbers to point to: strong fundraising and a solid base of supporters. But with Peter MacKay out of the leadership race and only low profile candidates remaining, growing that base will be a challenge.

Tory leadership race yet to reach large numbers of Canadians

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose has helped retain most of her party's support since the last election. It will be up to the permanent leader to grow support. (The Canadian Press / Jeff McIntosh)

Conservatives holding their caucus retreat this week in Halifax can rest assured that, despite Justin Trudeau's soaring poll numbers, their base is solid. But while that base is strong enough to keep the party first in fundraising, the Conservatives will not take power again relying upon their base alone.

So that base must grow. But a Conservative leadership race without a household name in the running — particularly now that Peter MacKay has announced he will not throw his hat in the ring — will make that a challenge.

After capturing 31.9 per cent of the vote in last year's federal vote, the Conservatives have averaged 28.6 per cent support in polls conducted since. This matches where the party was polling for much of 2013 and 2014, when the Mike Duffy affair was eating into the Conservatives' numbers.

If replicated at the ballot box in 2019, this would be the Tories' worst performance since first running as a united party in 2004 (when the Conservatives took 29.6 per cent of the vote). That the Conservatives have never consistently polled much lower than this, however, suggests the party may be down to its base of supporters.

But without a permanent leader in place, these numbers are not much to worry about for the Conservatives. The party still raised more money than the Liberals in the second quarter of 2016. And while the New Democrats have lost a significant portion of their support to Trudeau, the Conservatives have dipped just three points since the 2015 election.

Strongholds mostly holding

Still, the Conservatives have seen their support drop from one end of the country to the other. In Alberta, where the Conservatives took 59.6 per cent of the vote, the party has averaged 55 per cent since last fall. The Conservatives are down four points from the 35.1 per cent captured in Ontario and they have dropped just under three points in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Nevertheless, their support levels in these three regions of the country are still high enough to deliver the Conservatives a large number of seats. Their polls today align closely with where the party stood in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in 2004. These three provinces alone delivered 44 seats to the Conservatives in that election — matching the total haul the New Democrats won nationwide in October.

This assures the party a reliable base upon which to build for future elections. A recent Abacus Data poll showed that the Conservatives were retaining 93 per cent of their support from the 2015 vote. Polling conducted earlier in the year by Abacus showed the Conservatives leading with 60 to 61 per cent support among Canadians who self-identify as being on the right or centre-right.

By comparison, the New Democrats were tied with the Liberals among left-wing Canadians and losing the centre-left to the governing party.

Appealing to voters

The Conservatives do not face the same danger as the New Democrats of the Liberals squatting on their traditional territory. A majority of right-wing Canadians said they disapproved of the Trudeau government in Abacus's last poll, compared to just 13 per cent on the left. 

And according to Forum Research, 74 per cent of Conservative voters disapprove of Trudeau while a majority of New Democrats approve of the Liberal prime minister.

The lack of a permanent leader does not seem to have hurt the Conservatives. According to the CBC Leader Meter, interim Leader Rona Ambrose has averaged 34 per cent approval over the last 10 polls, with 31 per cent disapproving of her.

Former Conservative PM Stephen Harper had an average approval rating of 30 per cent during the 2015 campaign. Almost two-thirds of Canadians disapproved of him.

At a minimum, Ambrose has not dragged her party's fortunes down. But the evidence also points to her not having been able to push her party's numbers up. That will be the job of the next leader. So far, however, Canadians do not know much about the people currently running for that job.

Leadership unknowns

A recent survey by Ipsos showed that most of the leadership contestants who have put their names forward still have much to do to become better known.

Two of the five contestants officially in the race scored low on name recognition. More than 80 per cent of Canadians said they had never heard of Michael Chong or Kellie Leitch, while a majority had not heard of Maxime Bernier or Tony Clement.

Deepak Obhrai, the fifth candidate in the race, was not included in the poll.

Potential candidates like Ontario MPs Lisa Raitt and Erin O'Toole also scored poorly. Three-quarters of Canadians had never heard of Raitt, while 91 per cent had never heard of O'Toole.

Peter MacKay scored much more highly on name recognition, but he ruled himself out as a candidate on Monday. MacKay had led nearly all of the Conservative leadership polls in which his name was included.

Barring the entry of a surprise high-profile candidate, this indicates that no one from the list of current or potential contestants would give an immediate boost to the party on personality alone.

Against a hyper-active prime minister, the next Conservative leader may have difficulty raising his or her profile. The good news for the party, however, is that Canadians had a net favourable impression of all of the names tested by Ipsos.

The leadership contenders, then, get to start from a positive base. But like the party they want to lead, expanding from that base will pose their biggest challenge in the coming months and years.


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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