How a few hundred Conservative voters in Quebec helped put Erin O'Toole over the top

The Conservatives have some work to do to grow their base in Quebec, where a small number of members helped give Erin O'Toole his big win over Peter MacKay.

The number of Conservative members who voted in Quebec was lower in 2020 than in 2017

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole won his party's leadership with 59 per cent of members' votes. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Erin O'Toole won the leadership of the Conservative Party convincingly, beating runner-up Peter MacKay by over 27,000 votes. Had it not been for a few hundred votes cast in Quebec, however, it might have been a lot closer.

That's because there weren't many members in Quebec to be swayed.

The Conservative leadership vote was decided using a points system that awarded each riding equal weight regardless of how many members cast ballots in it. On points, O'Toole defeated MacKay by a margin of 57 to 43 per cent.

But in the raw vote, O'Toole's margin was even wider, at 59 to 41 per cent, thanks in large part to his 67 per cent vote share in Alberta, where there are lots of members.

In the end, the points system cost O'Toole only a little bit — and not nearly enough to risk denying him the leadership. It would not have taken much to flip the outcome, however.

An analysis of the riding-by-riding results suggests that as few as 1,210 votes decided the outcome between O'Toole and MacKay.

A small number of party members voted in 36 ridings in Quebec, two in Newfoundland and Labrador and the single riding in Nunavut. If MacKay had run the table in these 39 ridings, pulling those 1,210 members away from O'Toole and to himself, he would have won the leadership narrowly.

That narrow margin would not be as thin as it was in 2017, when (theoretically) 66 ballots were all that separated Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier in the last round of voting. But does show how the points system could have had unpredictable results. Flipping those 1,210 votes — which amounted to just 0.8 per cent of all ballots still active in the third round — would have given the win to MacKay on points, despite a theoretical 58 to 42 per cent popular vote loss.

Quebec punches above its weight, again

It was obvious before the results were finally announced that Quebec would punch above its weight in the leadership vote, just as it did in 2017. It would have been absolutely decisive in any scenario ending with a MacKay victory.

Along with the second- and third-choice support of social conservative members who initially voted for Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis, Quebec was an important part of O'Toole's path to victory.

The votes of Sloan and Lewis supporters mattered in Quebec, too. About one quarter of Sloan's supporters in Quebec ranked O'Toole as their second choice. More than half of the ballots liberated when Lewis was eliminated after the second round went to O'Toole as well (MacKay got only 18 per cent of those ballots, while the rest didn't have O'Toole or MacKay ranked).

But just 4,166 Quebec members of the party voted for O'Toole in the last round, representing only 4.6 per cent of O'Toole's support across the country. By comparison, 26 per cent of O'Toole's 90,635 votes came from Alberta. That's roughly twice the province's share of the national population.

Newly-minted Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole shakes hands with Peter MacKay, the runner-up in the party's leadership race. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

On average, 98 members voted in each of Quebec's 78 ridings — the lowest number of votes per riding nationwide in the Conservative leadership race. An average of 333 voters cast ballots in each riding in Atlantic Canada, 457 in ridings in Manitoba, 574 in British Columbia, 632 in Ontario and 651 in Saskatchewan.

Alberta had the highest average participation per riding, at 1,161. That means the average vote in Alberta was worth 0.08 points. In Quebec, the average vote was worth 1.02 points — nearly 12 times as much.

The disparity was widest between the Montreal riding of Bourassa and the Alberta riding of Foothills, south of Calgary. By the last round, just 23 ballots were still in play in Bourassa, compared to 1,866 in Foothills. Each ballot in Bourassa was worth about 81 times as much as a vote in Foothills. But because he received 65 per cent of the vote in both ridings, the two ridings were each worth 65 points to O'Toole.

Conservative membership in Quebec down from 2017

This points system is not unique to the Conservative Party. The Liberals, among other parties, also use this system. It partially reflects how general elections are run (seats, not the total vote count, decide the outcome) and ensures that regions get a say. For defenders of the system (which have included MacKay), these are features, not bugs.

But its distortions highlight an ongoing problem for the Conservatives.

The party successfully used this leadership race to grow its active membership. The number of members who cast ballots increased to 174,000 from 141,000 three years ago. It went up in every province — except Quebec.

In Western Canada, the number of members who voted increased to 79,088 from 60,511, a jump of 31 per cent. The number of ballots cast grew by about 11,600 to 76,419 in Ontario, an increase of 18 per cent. In Atlantic Canada, votes soared by 70 per cent to 10,664. This was in large part due to MacKay, who is from the region. Nova Scotia saw the biggest spike.

In Quebec, however, the number of members who voted in this leadership race dropped to 7,647 from 9,669 in 2017. That's a decrease of 21 per cent, dropping Quebec's total share of the vote to 4.4 per cent from 6.8 per cent three years ago, which was already well below its 23 per cent share of the Canadian population.

There were two candidates from Quebec in the 2017 leadership race: Steven Blaney (right) and Maxime Bernier (third from right). There were no candidates from the province this year and the number of voting members in the province decreased. But it did not decrease in Saskatchewan, which also had two candidates in 2017 and none this year. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The last leadership race had two candidates from Quebec (Bernier and Steven Blaney), which might explain some of the decrease. But Saskatchewan also had two candidates in 2017 (Scheer and Brad Trost). It saw its number of votes increase to 9,111 from 7,404, leap-frogging Quebec. The lack of a hometown hero this time did not affect Saskatchewan's membership numbers, which increased at the same rate as the country as a whole.

The Conservatives have long struggled to appeal to French-speaking Quebecers, something we see reflected in the membership numbers in Quebec itself. Quebec ridings where francophones are not a majority make up 17 per cent of the province's population, but provided 24 per cent of the party's voting members.

Though O'Toole was able to win the province's shrinking number of members, it remains to be seen how successful he will be in getting support among the broader population. He didn't get much help from the Quebec caucus during the leadership race. He received only one endorsement from the party's 10 Quebec MPs and did not win any of the ridings represented by the seven Quebec Conservatives who endorsed MacKay.

The party hasn't had much success in Quebec since the days of Brian Mulroney, so gaining ground in the province was always going to be a challenge no matter who the leader was. But it will be hard for O'Toole to make progress without a solid Conservative base in Quebec. His win there doesn't really change that.


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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