Kevin O'Leary and Peter MacKay top Tory leadership poll

A new poll puts the television personality Kevin O'Leary neck and neck with former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay. But this early in the race, are the numbers for real, or just based on O'Leary's high profile?

But O'Leary's main advantage may just be that people have heard of him

Businessman Kevin O'Leary, a former investor on CBC-TV's Dragon's Den, scored highly in the first poll on Conservative leadership prospects. (CBC)

After one week of publicly flirting with the idea, Kevin O'Leary got a boost for his potential bid for the Conservative leadership today with a new poll showing him neck and neck for the top spot with former cabinet minister Peter MacKay. But what to make of this poll?

The survey, conducted by Mainstreet Research for Postmedia, gauged Conservative supporters on their thoughts on the upcoming leadership race. Among a list of six candidates rumoured to be mulling a run, MacKay and O'Leary topped their rivals with 25 and 23 per cent support, respectively.

They were followed at a distance by Alberta MP Jason Kenney at eight per cent, Quebec and Ontario MPs Maxime Bernier and Lisa Raitt at four per cent, and Ontario MP Kellie Leitch at three per cent. Another three per cent said "someone else," while 29 per cent were undecided.

This is not the first poll to show MacKay, the former Nova Scotia MP and Progressive Conservative Party leader, in front. But it is the first to test O'Leary's support levels among Conservative voters after the businessman and television personality told the CBC he was considering a bid for the party's leadership.

But some caution should be exercised before O'Leary is labelled the Donald Trump of the North.

(CBC illustration)

Leadership polling at an early stage like this is often largely driven by name recognition. As a former venture capitalist on CBC-TV's Dragon's Den, current investor on ABC's Shark Tank, and frequent commentator on CTV, O'Leary has a profile that other potential candidates cannot compete with. The poll showed just 14 per cent of Conservatives were not familiar with O'Leary, while another 20 per cent were unsure of what they thought of him.

That combined score of 34 per cent was identical to MacKay's, who was first elected as an MP in 1997 and held high-profile cabinet positions throughout Stephen Harper's terms as prime minister.

(CBC illustration)

Both MacKay and O'Leary had much higher levels of recognition than other candidates. A majority — 54 per cent — of Conservatives were not familiar with or unsure of their opinion of Jason Kenney, while that number ballooned to 80 per cent for Kellie Leitch.

So it is difficult to know for certain if MacKay and O'Leary are truly popular among the Conservative base or merely well known. Both MacKay and O'Leary had almost identical favourability ratings, while their ratings among Conservatives with an opinion were similar to those of Kenney, too.

(CBC illustration/Canadian Press photo)

The poll was conducted at the end of a week that was dominated by media coverage of O'Leary's spat with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley after he suggested he would invest $1 million in the province if she resigned. Perhaps not coincidentally, O'Leary's numbers were highest in Alberta and the Prairies. More polling will be needed to determine whether or not O'Leary is merely the Conservative flavour of the week.

Liberals more popular than Tories

A poll by Abacus Data over the weekend suggested that whoever takes over the leadership of the Conservative Party will have some historical baggage to carry.

The poll tested Canadians' thoughts on seven recent prime ministers, finding that Liberal prime ministers Justin Trudeau, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin together amassed an average positive net approval rating of 16 points, compared to a net negative approval rating of 13 points for Stephen Harper, Brian Mulroney, and Joe Clark.

Of particular interest to those Conservatives trying to figure out where on the political spectrum the party should place itself was that Harper scored well among Conservatives, while Mulroney and Clark did not. As Abacus points out in its analysis, this demonstrates that the party's current support base is more to the right than it was in the past, and that its Reform foundations carry more favour among the party faithful than its Progressive Conservative roots.

The two new polls also show the mountain the Conservatives have to climb, pegging the party's support to be between 28 and 32 per cent, virtually unchanged from the last election. The Liberals, however, have between 44 and 45 per cent support. They also happen to be led by a prime minister that, according to Abacus Data, is more popular than any of his recent predecessors — including his father.

The poll by Mainstreet Research was conducted for Postmedia on Jan. 15, 2016, interviewing 4,937 Canadians via interactive voice response. The survey carries a margin of error of +/- 1.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The poll by Abacus Data was conducted between Jan. 8 and 12, 2016, interviewing 1,500 Canadians via the internet. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply.


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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