Big crowds turning out for Poilievre suggest a very different kind of Conservative leadership race

In the last two Conservative leadership races, the supposed front-runners stumbled before reaching the finish line. This time, however, the front-runner is Pierre Poilievre — and he's only showing signs of gaining ground.

Crowds can motivate but votes are what win leadership races, say analysts

Federal Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre arrives at an anti-carbon tax rally in Ottawa on Thursday, March 31, 2022. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

In the last two Conservative leadership races, the supposed front-runners stumbled before reaching the finish line. This time, however, the front-runner is only showing signs of gaining ground.

Swelling crowd counts and MP endorsements aren't ironclad guarantees of success, but they certainly don't hurt. And Pierre Poilievre — with his populist appeals to frustration with government "gatekeepers" and calls to make Canada "the freest country on earth" — is doing well on both those measures.

Poilievre has tweeted photos of rallies in British Columbia and Ontario attended by hundreds of people. His visits to Calgary on Tuesday and Edmonton on Thursday are expected to draw more big crowds.

"They're unprecedented in a leadership [race]," said Melanie Paradis, a veteran of the two previous Conservative leadership races who served as former leader Erin O'Toole's deputy campaign director.

"He has a compelling narrative. It's important to credit that."

The theme of Poilievre's campaign is freedom. His rallies target government policies that he argues restrict those freedoms — everything from vaccine mandates to carbon taxes to government policy on inflation. Poilievre promises that if he becomes prime minister, he'll put a stop to all of it.

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His supporters praise Poilievre for being an unapologetic conservative. Many like his willingness to bluntly criticize and even mock the Liberals.

Detractors worry he'll deepen divisions within the party and the country. Some have gone as far as to warn of the "Trumpification" of the Conservative Party if Poilievre wins.

Recent Conservative leadership contests haven't been kind to perceived front-runners. Maxime Bernier was expected to win the leadership in 2017, only to be knocked down by Andrew Scheer.

In 2020, Peter MacKay was widely viewed as the front-runner because he'd held a series of high-profile cabinet posts and helped to found the modern Conservative Party. He lost to O'Toole on the third ballot.

Poilievre benefits from some key differences between this race and the last two, said Paradis.

Andrew Scheer, right, is congratulated by Maxime Bernier after being elected the new leader of the federal Conservative party at the federal Conservative leadership convention in Toronto.
Andrew Scheer, right, is congratulated by Maxime Bernier after being elected the new leader of the federal Conservative Party in May 2017. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In 2017, Paradis said, the party was out of practice when it came to running leadership races. It allowed the race to drag on for more than a year, she said, which robbed it of a sense of urgency. It also had a field of more than a dozen candidates, which divided the attention and resources of party activists.

In the last race, leadership contenders had to grapple with pandemic limits on the size of gatherings, which undermined outreach efforts. Now, Paradis said, many Canadians are excited to spend time with others.

Poilievre also has the advantage in caucus endorsements. More than 50 MPs are publicly backing him, compared to just 11 MP endorsements for candidate and former Quebec premier Jean Charest and six for MP Leslyn Lewis, who's running for the leadership for a second time.

A man stands at a podium in front of a Canadian flag.
Liberal leader and incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau at Liberal Party headquarters in Montreal early on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015 after winning the 42nd general election. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Former Conservative senior staffer Garry Keller said he sees a parallel between Poilievre's campaign performance and that of his chief political foe, Justin Trudeau. The massive crowds the rookie Liberal leader drew at events up and down the 401 highway in Ontario during the 2015 election campaign offered the first hint of the Liberal Party of Canada's comeback victory over Stephen Harper's Conservatives that year.

"[Trudeau] was getting mega-crowds for Canadian politics with a moment's notice. You can't fake that. I'm seeing a lot of similarities with Pierre's campaign," said Keller, a vice president at StrategyCorp and ex-chief of staff to John Baird, a former Harper cabinet minister and an adviser on Poilievre's campaign.

The idea of similarities between Trudeau and Poilievre may seem strange to some, but both have managed to get people talking and draw in supporters who are new to party politics, said Keller.

Turning turnout into votes

He said Liberals should remember the Conservatives who laughed off Trudeau in 2015 and take Poilievre's potential as a candidate seriously.

One of the deciding factors in the Conservative leadership race may be whether Poilievre and his team can translate rally turnout into voter turnout.

Big rally crowds can project momentum and provide "an intimidation factor" for opponents, said Éric Grenier, founder of the elections analysis site TheWrit.ca — but they're not an end unto themselves.

"The most important thing is to make sure those people actually sign up to become members," he said.

"If you're being very successful, signing people up over the Internet, over social media, then the fact that you don't have these big crowds might not be that important."

Candidates have until June 3 to sign up new members.

Getting supporters to take out party memberships is one thing. Getting them to actually vote is another.

Paradis — who is remaining neutral in the leadership contest — pointed out that in recent Conservative leadership races, only about 60 per cent of the party's eligible voters actually wound up casting ballots.

Patrick Brown stands on stage with his wife Genevieve Gualtieri and children Theodore (right) and Savannah as he announces his candidacy for the federal Conservative leadership at a rally in Brampton, Ont., on Sunday, March 13, 2022. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

While no one else in the race has yet shown Poilievre's ability to draw crowds, there are other ways to manage a run for the leadership.

Former MP and Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown is known for his political determination. Paradis said that while Brown has kept relatively quiet on social media lately, he's been working the phones daily from early morning to past midnight, reaching out to potential supporters, while attending numerous events during the day.

"Nobody really talks about what Patrick is up to and I think he's fine with that," she said.

Lewis has tweeted photos of herself addressing sizeable crowds while touring the Prairie provinces. She also showed strength by being the first candidate to officially get on the Conservative ballot by submitting the necessary $300,000 in fundraising and signatures from supporters.

Lewis and her team can be expected to make use of lessons learned during her previous leadership run, said Keller.

Charest takes on Poilievre through the media

The candidate who has made the most pointed comments about Poilievre to date is Charest, who hasn't seen many large crowds during the race. Instead, he's been taking the fight to Poilievre through the media.

Over the weekend, Charest told several interviewers that Poilievre's support for the self-styled "Freedom Convoy" — which occupied parts of downtown Ottawa in February to demand an end to all pandemic restrictions — should disqualify Poilievre from being prime minister

"The choice is this — either we do American-style politics, the politics of attack and of division, or we do politics the way we do it in Canada," Charest said in French while appearing on Radio-Canada's Tout le Monde en Parle.

"Mr. Poilievre, who is by the way a legislator ... supported a blockade that had very direct consequences on the Canadian economy and which was illegal. Laws are not like a buffet where we choose what we like and what we don't."

Two men take a selfie during a protest in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Police enforce an injunction against protesters taking part in the convoy occupation of downtown Ottawa on Feb. 19, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Charest supporter and long-time Conservative MP Ed Fast was asked by reporters last week about the crowds coming out to hear Poilievre speak.

"I don't think we need to stir up anger in Canada. I don't think we should be tapping into that. I think what we need right now is somebody who can heal the nation," said Fast.

Keller rejects the suggestion that Poilievre is divisive. While the Ottawa MP has made some pointed attacks against his rivals in the race, Keller said he sees that as the candidate standing up for his conservative principles.

"[Poilievre] is trying to make headlines and he is trying to very clearly stake out some ground here about who he is," he said.

With months left to go before the September vote, Paradis cautioned against drawing any early conclusions about momentum. So much of what matters in campaigns, from raising money to assembling supporters, happens away from the public eye, she said.

"No one really sees what's really going on in these races. And it's why people are surprised every time."


Catherine Cullen

Senior reporter

Catherine Cullen is host of CBC Radio's The House and a senior reporter on Parliament Hill.