Pierre Poilievre's path to win the Conservative leadership is wide
Ontario MP is the first in and he's already the front runner
Yes, Pierre Poilievre wasted no time in announcing his candidacy for the Conservative Party leadership, only three days after Erin O’Toole was dumped and long before any of the rules of the contest have been set.
On Saturday evening, Poilievre put out a video in which he put the cart before the horse, announcing his campaign for prime minister:
I can already hear the pedants clearing their throats for a round of “well, actuallys” since, of course, we don’t elect directly prime ministers in Canada, but Poilievre has never been one to let that sort of thing get in the way of a good line.
Within hours of his video going online, over a dozen MPs announced they were endorsing the Ontario MP, a strong showing of force that is undoubtedly aimed at intimidating any would-be contestants and getting a first-mover advantage.
And Poilievre has plenty of advantages in this race. So, what’s his path to victory?
The rules of the race
Before getting into Poilievre’s particular path to Stornoway (the first stop before any “running” for prime minister), I think it’s worthwhile to describe the field of play in this leadership race as I see it. I would like to lay out the paths for each major candidate as they come forward — so, best to start with my priors.
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This is the third Conservative leadership contest in five years. For both the 2017 and 2020 races, I went deep into the weeds for the CBC, dissecting the campaign from as many as angles as I could. Hopefully I learned a thing or two along the way.
The membership that voted in 2017 and 2020, judging by the results, looked much the same in each of those races. And with the last vote having been held less than two years ago, there is little reason to believe that the membership will be much different this time — especially since the race is likely to be relatively short.
Most talk I’ve seen from MPs and others within the party suggests the new leader will be named before the end of the year. Parliament is currently scheduled to return from the summer recess on September 19, so it is possible the Conservatives will want to have their new leader in place by then. If that’s the case, we’re looking at a race that is no more than seven months long.
But that’s just one of the things we don’t know at the moment. A key factor will be the requirements contestants will have to meet to become official candidates: the amount of money to be raised and the number of signatures to be gathered. If the bar is set very high, that can weed out some low-profile candidates (though, as we saw in 2020 with Derek Sloan and Jim Karahalios, who met the thresholds but was disqualified by the party, it by no means limits the field to “establishment” candidates only). If the bar is very low, we could have a big, unruly field.
The rules of how the votes will be counted are already set, and will be much the same as in 2017 and 2020. The outcome is decided by a ranked ballot, in which voters mark their first, second, etc. choices, with their votes being transferred to their next choice if their preferred choice is eliminated.
But there is one difference. In those two contests, each riding was equally weighted at 100 points regardless of how many members voted in the riding.
This time, ridings with at least 100 voting members will be each worth 100 points, while ridings with fewer than 100 voting members will only be worth as many points as the number of votes cast. So, if 13 members vote in Nunavut, the riding will be worth 13 points. If 1,300 vote in Calgary Centre, the riding will be worth 100 points.
It’s a subtle change but an important one, as it means ridings with fewer members won’t be worth as much as they used to be. The net result will likely be that Quebec will be worth less in this contest than it was in previous races, as nearly all of the ridings with fewer than 100 voting members in 2020 were in Quebec.
The party’s ‘factions’
The Conservative Party came about as the result of a merger between the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance in 2003. Those two ‘wings’ of the merged party defined some of the divisions within it for some time, but things have evolved over the last two decades. Broadly speaking, there are still loosely-defined moderate and conservative wings of the party, but it is a bit more complicated than that.
While the Conservative membership could be sliced and diced in many different ways, I think the 2020 results, with just four candidates each in their own camps, revealed some very clear ‘factions’ within the party membership:
The first group is what I’m calling the Moderates. They’ve been labeled Progressive Conservatives or Red Tories in the past, but I don’t think that label means much anymore.
On social issues, Moderates generally believe that it’s none of the government’s business what one does in their personal lives. People can marry whom they like and should have access to safe abortions. They might take a more lenient stance on drug use, but can be just as hawkish on fiscal issues or foreign policy as any other Conservative within the party. Moderates see the path forward for the party as distancing it from the social conservative wing, which holds it back in swing battlegrounds, and adopting serious policies for fighting climate change.
Moderates are strongest in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and in urban areas. They were represented by Peter MacKay in 2020, who captured 30% of raw votes (rather than points) in the first round.
I’m calling the second group True Blues, which is what Erin O’Toole adopted as his slogan in 2020. This, increasingly, seems to be the mainstream of the Conservative Party.
Because they straddle the ‘centre’ of the party, they can include Conservatives with both progressive and conservative social views. This is the group that talks of a ‘big tent’, respecting the views of social conservatives while still pledging not to bring forward legislation related to abortion or other contentious social issues. Erin O’Toole (pro-choice) and Andrew Scheer (anti-abortion) both made this promise, as Stephen Harper did when he was leader.
True Blues are far more suspicious of environmental policy than Moderates, though recognize they need to put something in the window on this file. They have a lot of overlap with Moderates on fiscal issues and on some social issues, but also get support from the two other groups described below.
Style sets True Blues apart from Moderates — they are far more overtly partisan and don’t let nuance or context get in the way of scoring political points.
True Blues are strongest in Western Canada and in rural Ontario. They were represented by Erin O’Toole in 2020, who got 29% of votes on the first ballot.
A very influential group within the Conservative Party, social conservatives (or SoCons) are primarily motivated by social conservative issues, such as abortion or, more recently, conversion therapy. On fiscal or foreign policy issues, SoCons can be very similar to other Conservatives within the party.
This faction is supported by many grassroots organizations throughout the country, which makes it very effective at fundraising and signing up new members. SoCons were instrumental in the victories of both Scheer in 2017 and O’Toole in 2020.
Social conservatives draw their support primarily west of Quebec. They were represented by Leslyn Lewis in 2020, who had 25% support on the first ballot.
This last group could by styled in several ways — populists, Trumpists, the far right — but I’m calling them PPC Adjacents. This group is anti-establishment, anti-vaccine and/or vaccine mandates, supports Donald Trump (and probably think the U.S. election was stolen from him), is steeped in misinformation and is deeply distrustful of the media.
Many of them might have decamped to the People’s Party in the last election when it came to voting, but a candidate from their ranks can still attract some support from the existing membership and be successful in signing up new members (who might be motivated by the idea of ‘taking back’ the Conservative Party).
A lot of the PPC Adjacents are also social conservatives or are attracted by the style of the True Blues. Many of them might also be unwilling to rank Moderates or True Blues on their ballot, meaning if their preferred candidate doesn’t win their votes disappear.
In 2020, they were represented by Derek Sloan, who got 16% of the vote on the first ballot.
The chart below shows where his votes, along with those of Lewis, went from one ballot to the next.
When Sloan dropped off the first ballot, the bulk of his support went to Lewis, while a small amount went to O’Toole. More ranked no candidate second than ranked MacKay, who picked up very little from Sloan’s elimination.
When Lewis was eliminated, most of her support went to O’Toole. Again, more of her supporters preferred to rank no candidate next than rank MacKay.
We see here how the factions behave — PPC Adjacents will go to SoCons and a little bit to True Blues, but not to Moderates. SoCons will go to True Blues, but more will prefer to have their vote dropped than go to a Moderate.
This is the challenge for the Moderates — they don’t have the same growth potential as a True Blue.
Granted, this is a simplification and these four factions represent only one dimension of the party. There are regional blocs, too, like the Quebec Conservatives who are socially progressive while defending Quebec’s jurisdiction and identity issues, Western Conservatives who fiercely defend the oil and gas industry, urban Conservatives who feel the party needs to be more welcoming to first- and second-generation Canadians, etc.
These factions are not exclusive to one another and a Venn diagram of Conservative members would have lots of overlap. Nevertheless, understanding these dynamics is essential to understanding how the balloting works — and whether a candidate has a path to victory.
That, finally, brings us to Poilievre.
Based on his launch video, Poilievre is squarely placing himself in the True Blue category. With his emphasis on freedom (and support for truckers) he’s positioning himself to gobble up the PPC Adjacent vote, while his mention of the “freedom to worship God in your own way” is a nod toward the SoCon vote. Poilievre, like O’Toole, has in the past said he is pro-choice (potentially making him acceptable to some Moderates), but is leaving the Big Tent open for social conservatives, too.
So, that gives Poilievre a wide-open path to the leadership. His endorsements already include as many MPs who backed MacKay as backed O’Toole in 2020, suggesting he is not only supported by one camp.
Regionally, Poilievre has a number of endorsements from MPs in B.C. and Ontario, as well as a few from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick. That’s a decent spread to start.
As of writing, though, he has no backing from Quebec. His rhetoric might be a little too far to the right for many Quebec MPs. Still, Poilievre speaks French well (better than Harper, Scheer or O’Toole did) and could have some appeal among francophone members.
The path for Poilievre is pretty obvious — get the support from the True Blue Conservatives who wanted the kind of leader O’Toole presented himself to be during the 2020 leadership race. Poilievre has been rather consistent with his political persona, so Conservatives might feel more comfortable with his authenticity.
There are some risks for Poilievre, though. His rhetoric is hardly reserved and highly partisan, so he might be too off-putting for any Conservatives who feel the party needs to present a more palatable option to swing voters in the next election. Another viable True Blue candidate with more socially-conservative views could cause problems for him in later rounds of balloting. If his corner of the sandbox gets too crowded, the dynamics of the ranked ballot could penalize a True Blue at the expense of a single Moderate or single SoCon candidate.
But, Poilievre starts out as the front runner. He has already taken a number of endorsements off the table. He has a long history within the party and will have immediate legitimacy for a lot of members who are fed up with the Liberal government and will welcome a pugnacious style. He has already demonstrated his skills in fundraising and has apparently used the last few years to foster a significant following online.
We’ll have a better idea of his chances when we know who he will be up against. But, at the moment, the race has to be seen as his to lose.