After Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer faces stiffer challenge from Justin Trudeau

Polls suggest that Canadians have few strong opinions about Andrew Scheer and that presents the new Conservative leader with both an opportunity and a problem.

Canadians largely unfamiliar with the new leader of the Conservative Party

Polls suggest Andrew Scheer is unlikely to give the Conservative Party a short-term boost against Justin Trudeau. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Andrew Scheer managed to narrowly defeat Maxime Bernier for the Conservative leadership on Saturday, but polls suggest that Scheer will have his work cut out for him to defeat his next opponent — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

One-term governments with a majority are rare in Canada. The last one to go down to defeat was R.B. Bennett's in 1935 in the depths of the Great Depression. So turfing out Trudeau would be a challenge for whomever won the leadership.

But beyond the historical context, polling conducted before Conservatives made their final decision suggested that Scheer is largely unknown and is not well-positioned to give the party a significant boost in public support — though Bernier might not have done much better.

Polling by Nanos Research found that just 17 per cent of Canadians said Scheer would make them more likely to vote for the Conservative Party, well below Bernier's score of 29 per cent. Scheer also ranked below Lisa Raitt and Michael Chong in the survey.

Just under half, or 48 per cent, said Scheer's leadership would make them less likely to vote for the Conservatives, similar to Bernier's score. But fully 25 per cent of respondents were unsure of how Scheer would impact their vote, 15 points higher than Bernier — suggesting that many Canadians still know little about the Saskatchewan MP.

But familiarity can cut both ways. While Nanos found that 17 per cent of Canadians thought Bernier would make the best prime minister against just four per cent for Scheer, the poll also suggested that eight per cent of Canadians thought Bernier would make the worst prime minister. On the worst prime minister score, Scheer came in at just 0.1 per cent.

And in Quebec, whose members gave Scheer unexpectedly high support, Bernier was the preferred prime minister by 25 per cent to just two per cent for Scheer. But 18 per cent of Quebecers also thought Bernier was the worst option, making the Quebec MP a potentially high reward but also high-risk candidate.

Scheer vs. Trudeau

But how Scheer compared to Bernier in the eyes of Canadians is now academic. The real comparisons will now be made between the new leader of the opposition and the prime minister.

In a poll conducted less than two weeks before Saturday's vote, Léger found the Liberals leading in national voting intentions with 46 per cent support against 25 per cent for a Rona Ambrose-led Conservative Party. The Liberals enjoyed a lead over the Conservatives worth 16 points in Ontario, 23 points in British Columbia and 41 points in Quebec.
Andrew Scheer, right, is congratulated by Maxime Bernier after being elected the new leader of the federal Conservative party. Bernier is better known, but so far few Canadians say Scheer would be the worst prime minister. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

With Scheer as leader of the party, however, Conservative support dropped two points to 23 per cent nationwide. The Liberal lead widened by one point in Ontario, three in Quebec and seven points in B.C. Only in the Prairies did Scheer's leadership put the Conservatives in a better position.

Bernier kept the party at 25 per cent support nationwide, but whittled the Liberals' edge in Quebec down to 29 points.

Though Scheer did surprisingly well among Conservative Party members in Quebec, he may have more difficulty appealing to other voters in the province. Quebecers have traditionally favoured parties led by native sons over those led by non-Quebecers, and his policies are less likely to appeal to the general population in Quebec than to the party's rank-and-file.

Behind the scenes with Andrew Scheer

6 years ago
Duration 4:19
The CBC's Catherine Cullen follows Andrew Scheer as he won the leadership and during his first hours as the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Having another Western Canadian — though Scheer grew up in Ontario, he represents a riding in Regina — is unlikely to boost the Conservatives' chances significantly, as the party is already strong in the region. And party members in Alberta and Manitoba favoured Bernier over Scheer.

Opportunity or problem?

In terms of experience, Scheer has been an MP for four more years than Trudeau, though in 2019 Trudeau will have one term as prime minister under his belt. But experience is not a trump card — Trudeau was the least experienced of the major leaders in 2015. Similarly Stephen Harper's experience paled in comparison to Paul Martin's when he first won in 2006.

But the lack of enthusiasm from Canadians for a Scheer-led Conservative Party in the polls should be of some concern. In hypothetical polls, Trudeau gave the Liberals a significant boost prior to his winning the leadership in 2013. Trudeau, however, was much better known when he was first named leader than Scheer is today.

That presents both an opportunity and a problem for the Conservatives. Opinions have yet to be formed about their new leader. In order for Scheer to have a good shot at a historical upset in 2019, he will need to ensure those first impressions are positive ones.

The poll by Nanos Research was conducted for the Globe and Mail between May 24-25, 2017, interviewing 1,000 Canadian adults online and via the telephone. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll by Léger was conducted between May 15-18, 2017, interviewing 1,529 Canadian adults who were members of an internet panel. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.


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.