Kevin O'Leary's path to victory wasn't easy, but is Maxime Bernier's any easier?

Kevin O'Leary is right that he had limited second-ballot support and few prospects in Quebec, but he may not be right that Maxime Bernier is the solution.

O'Leary's departure makes the Conservative leadership Bernier's to lose

Kevin O'Leary, right, pulled out of the Conservative leadership race on Wednesday and threw his support behind Maxime Bernier. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

In abandoning the Conservative leadership race, Kevin O'Leary laid out a few reasons for throwing in the towel, including his limited support in Quebec and dwindling growth prospects after the first ballot.

These check out. His hope that his endorsement will propel Maxime Bernier to victory of the party leadership is also justified but far from certain. His belief that Bernier would be better placed to win the next federal election is on shakier ground.

That O'Leary was one of the front-runners seems clear. He trailed narrowly behind Bernier in an index of various leadership metrics and has long been in first place in Mainstreet/iPolitics's polling of a segment of Conservative members.

But O'Leary — or any other candidate — was very unlikely to finish anywhere close to the majority mark on any of the early ballots. That meant that O'Leary would need to be ranked second (or third, or fourth) by a significant proportion of voters.

There were indications that O'Leary would have difficulty amassing enough of these votes to win the race. Mainstreet's polling consistently showed O'Leary as the candidate party members said they were least likely to support. This severely limited his growth potential, taking 20 to 30 per cent of votes off the table entirely. 

O'Leary was also not the choice of the party's establishment. Only two Conservative MPs in the House of Commons endorsed him, while 67 MPs have opted for another candidate.

O'Leary himself alluded to this in a statement on Wednesday, saying, "Because I am an outsider, I have very weak second-ballot support."

The inability to speak French or break through in Quebec were also cited by O'Leary as reasons for his withdrawal from the race. Fluency in French is a significant advantage both in the Conservative leadership race and in a federal election, and would have limited O'Leary's prospects in both contests.

At his news conference with Bernier on Wednesday, O'Leary claimed that his polling showed he had only 12 per cent support in Quebec.

259,010 members

A bigger problem for O'Leary, however, might have been the announcement on Tuesday that 259,010 members would be eligible to vote in the race — a number that far exceeded expectations.

O'Leary's campaign was predicated on bringing in a large influx of new members to compensate for his likely struggles among the Conservative Party's base, but the 35,000 he claimed to net represent just under 14 per cent of the total eligible electorate. That's far too small for O'Leary to significantly outpace his rivals early in the balloting process.

Until the party had announced the total this week, O'Leary's campaign might have been holding out hope that the numbers claimed by some of his rivals — about 30,000 each for Bernier and Kellie Leitch — had been exaggerated.

Bernier the best bet to beat Justin Trudeau?

In his statement, O'Leary claimed that Bernier was well placed to win in Quebec, and thus give the Conservatives the best chance to defeat Justin Trudeau in 2019. 

Quebec is not necessary for a Conservative victory. Stephen Harper won a majority government in 2011 with only five seats in Quebec. O'Leary says the decline of the Bloc Québécois and the surge of the NDP in the province that year was an exceptional circumstance that allowed the Conservatives to win without Quebec — a defensible statement.

But polls do not suggest that Berner is likely to do significantly better in Quebec than O'Leary would have. A survey by Ipsos/Global News in January found that O'Leary would boost the Conservatives to 25 per cent support in the province, compared to 23 per cent for a Bernier-led Conservative Party.

More recent polling obtained by CBC News from Abacus Data has found that, among Canadians who might consider voting Conservative, Bernier is no more appealing than O'Leary. And both leaders would push more voters away from the Conservatives than they would draw to the party — though Bernier somewhat less so than O'Leary.

Where the race goes from here

But in the shorter term, does O'Leary's endorsement of Bernier put the Quebec MP over the top?

While O'Leary's encouragement may push some voters to Bernier's side, he was not the consensus second choice of O'Leary's supporters.

Polling done by the Bernier campaign at the end of March showed that just 29 per cent of O'Leary's supporters ranked Bernier as their second choice — more than any other candidate but far from a clear preference.

Leitch was the second choice of 23 per cent of O'Leary's supporters in the survey, followed by Lisa Raitt at 15 per cent and Andrew Scheer at 11 per cent.

There is also the issue that the ballots have already been printed and mailed. O'Leary's name will be on the ballot, and many of his supporters may still rank him as their first choice and refrain from ranking any other candidates.

Nevertheless, it seems likely that Bernier is well positioned to take a lot of O'Leary's supporters. But with O'Leary out, an opportunity now exists for one candidate to emerge as Bernier's main rival — and Ontario, where six of the remaining 13 candidates call home, could play a key role in deciding who that is.

Unless and until that happens, it seems that Bernier now stands alone as the front-runner in this race. Completed ballots will soon start being returned. The winner will be announced in a little more than a month — but the race could essentially be decided well before that.

If O'Leary has his way, it was decided today.


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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