How Andrew Scheer ranks among Conservative leaders

Four previous leaders failed to become prime minister when the Conservative Party was united. Andrew Scheer is now the fifth.

Only 4 previous leaders failed to become prime minister when the party was united

Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer announces he will step down as leader of the Conservatives, Thursday December 12, 2019 in the House of Commons in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

With the exception of the time when the conservative movement in Canada was divided, only two leaders of the Conservative Party or its Progressive Conservative predecessor led their parties into a single election before resigning: Robert Manion and John Bracken.

Until Thursday, that is. Now, Andrew Scheer's name can be added to that item of obscure political trivia.

It's too early to say where Scheer's legacy will rank among Conservative leaders (Progressive or otherwise) and we might not get a clearer idea until after the next election. Stéphane Dion, for instance, looked like one of the Liberal Party's biggest losers following the 2008 vote. Then along came Michael Ignatieff.

But there is one way to measure how Scheer stacks up against his predecessors: results.

First, there's the simple measure of wins and losses. There have been 18 leaders of the Conservatives (and of predecessor parties, including Reform and the Canadian Alliance). Ten of them served as prime minister — seven of them as a result of winning an election outright.

Scheer ranks among those eight Conservative leaders who have never held the top job. They are Manion, Bracken, George Drew, Robert Stanfield, Preston Manning, Jean Charest and Stockwell Day. The last three were handicapped by the right being split in two — meaning Scheer will be the first leader of an undivided Conservative party to never become prime minister since Stanfield, who resigned in 1976.

Scheer, by the numbers

Second, there's the share of the vote that the Conservatives captured under Scheer. The party received 34.4 per cent of ballots cast, narrowly edging out the Liberals by a little more than a percentage point.

That ranks as the 28th-best performance for the party out of 43 elections. With the exception of a few elections held prior to the beginning of the multi-party system in the 1930s, only Stanfield captured more of the vote without becoming prime minister (in 1972 and 1974).

Manion and Bracken, the only other one-and-done leaders, took 31 and 28 per cent of the vote, respectively, in the 1940 and 1945 elections.

The third measure is the number of seats the party won under Scheer. The Conservatives took 121 seats, the most in a losing campaign. But the number of seats in the House of Commons has grown continuously, so it's better to look at the share of seats won by the Conservatives: 35.8 per cent.

That also ranks the party's performance under Scheer in the bottom half of Conservative election results — 29th out of 43. Stanfield in 1972 and 1974, John Diefenbaker in 1963 and 1965 and Joe Clark in 1980 all won bigger shares of the seats on offer than Scheer did without forming a government.

How will Scheer be remembered?

It all puts Scheer somewhere in the middle of the pack — not quite high enough that he ranks among those who became prime ministers, not quite low enough that he ranks among the party's most unfortunate leaders. This explains in part why it wasn't a given that the election's results demanded Scheer's immediate resignation.

Stephen Harper, for example, did worse on both the popular vote and seat share measures in his first election as leader in 2004.

(CBC News)

In terms of results, Conservative leaders can be ranked in three tiers. At the top, both John A. Macdonald and Robert Borden averaged just over 50 per cent of the vote in their elections as leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Macdonald lost only one of his seven elections as leader. Borden won two of his four.

Next on the list are leaders like R.B. Bennett, Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney and Harper — leaders who both brought their parties to power and led them into (or, in the case of Mulroney, directed them toward) defeat.

Finally, there are the leaders generally remembered as failures, when they're remembered at all: Charles Tupper, Arthur Meighen, Manion, Bracken, Drew, Stanfield, Clark and Kim Campbell.

It appears Scheer can be penciled onto that list — but how he'll be remembered long-term, and for what, is something for posterity to decide.


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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