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Why the Conservative membership total blew away insider projections

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Some campaigns sacrificed data to save cash; 100,000 new members are now fair game for email blasts.

Candidates in the Conservative leadership race were able to sign up members to the party in several ways, including one that kept those people hidden from their competitors until last week. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The Conservative Party blew past estimates from leadership candidates, pollsters, and party insiders by signing up 259,010 members by the March 28 cutoff to vote in the federal party’s leadership race on May 27.

Estimates by those close to the race had ranged from 150,000 to 200,000 over the past few months, far below the number of members signed up for the last race in 2004—about 251,000—which catapulted Stephen Harper to the top of the newly formed Conservative Party of Canada over rivals Tony Clement and Belinda Stronach.

There appears to be no clear-cut explanation for the higher-than-expected membership count, according to those involved in or tracking the leadership contest, who suggested everything from an influx of nontraditional voters to money-saving tactics that kept campaigns in the dark as reasons for the discrepancy.

The release last week of the full list of party members to each of the candidates means that the details for roughly 100,000 potential voters, which had been split and monopolized between the different candidates, are now fair game for a final push by each to win them over.

Total beats ‘04 race

“Most sources were still telling me, up until last week, about 175[,000 members],” said Quito Maggi, president and CEO of Mainstreet Research, which has been tracking the leadership race for iPolitics.

Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) predicted roughly 150,000 members would be eligible to vote in the May 27 election in an interview with the Huffington Post in February. Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) told the CBC he predicted 150,000 members, then later revised that to 170,000. Former candidate Kevin O’Leary’s campaign was expecting between 150,000 and 190,000, spokesperson Ari Laskin told The Hill Times, while candidate Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.) said he expected close to 200,000.  

“We didn’t think that there was going to be as much interest in this one as there was in the last one, because of the calibre of the top three [candidates] in that last leadership [race],” said Mr. Maggi, who said he had estimated a total of around 200,000 members by the March 28 sign-up deadline.

The 2004 leadership race also had the advantage of a recent Progressive Conservative-Canadian Alliance merger and open nominations across the country buoying interest, said Cory Hann, a spokesperson for the Conservative Party of Canada.

This time around, it was hard to guess how many members would be signed up in a race with 14 different candidates—now 13 with Kevin O’Leary’s exit—plus another two who dropped out early, Daniel Lindsay and Tony Clement, said Mr. Hann.

“It reflects well on each of the campaigns and the work that they did,” he said.

Saving cash in the stretch run

However, several leadership campaigns pointed to the way information on new members was shared by the party or guarded by the candidates to explain the low estimates by those involved in the race.

The party sent out a new list of party members to all candidates each time a new person entered the race; Kevin O’Leary was the last entrant after he declared in mid-January. The party also sent out an updated list at the end of March, and then a final list when it announced the final tally last week.

“Before March, no one really knew,” said Melanie Paradis, a spokesperson for the O’Toole campaign.

Conservative MP Erin O’Toole estimated in February the party would have 150,000 eligible members to vote for the new leader, but it turned out to be 259,010. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The first lists released by the party only included the names of people signed up by the party itself, not by the candidates, who were able to hold onto the personal details of some of those people until the final list came out, by classifying them as “segregated members” who could not participate in party activities until April 28. That allowed each camp to get somewhat exclusive access to the people they signed up, to pitch for support or donations, but it also kept each camp in the dark about what their competitors had been able to accomplish until the final list was published last week. 

The party also imposed a $5 fee for each new membership form in any of the batches sent in by the campaigns during the final month of the contest, a disincentive created to avoid a last-minute deluge of submissions that would be impossible for the party to process on time.

As a result, some of the volunteers on the campaigns for Maxime Bernier, Kevin O’Leary, and Deepak Obhrai avoided signing people up that way during the final month before the deadline.

“Why would I give $5 extra to the party?” said Mr. Obhrai.

Some of the volunteers with the Bernier and O’Leary campaigns switched to asking supporters to sign up through the Conservative Party website over that final month, to avoid paying the fee, according to Mr. Laskin and Maxime Hupé, a spokesperson for the Bernier campaign.

“When you do that, you lose track of all the memberships,” said Mr. Hupé. 

Campaigns also had the option of saving the $5 fee by setting up a portal on their websites during the last month that would direct people to the Conservative Party website to sign up electronically, and would send the candidates nightly reports on who was using their portal to sign up, something the Bernier and O’Leary campaigns also eventually took advantage of, as did the Kellie Leitch campaign, according to spokesperson Michael Diamond.

Third-parties registered thousands

Estimates may also have failed to properly account for the efforts of advocacy groups that encouraged people to sign up to the party, said Mr. Maggi, in particular those by socially conservative groups.

The Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion group, says it signed up 7,000 members to the Conservative Party before the March 28 cutoff. Mr. Maggi said he believed Parents As First Educators, a group that opposes the Ontario Liberal government’s plan to change sexual education courses, has also signed up several thousand members to the federal Conservative Party, and that roughly 30,000 were signed up to support socially conservative candidates like Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.).

There are also several digital campaigns that have tried to rally voters towards centrist conservative candidates, including Tolerable Opposition, End Bigotry, and A Strong Canada, which claim to have mustered between 5,000 and 10,000 members between them, and industry interest groups like the pro-supply management Les amis de la Gestion de L’offre et des Régions and unregulated maple syrup group J’Exige l’Arrêt des Procédures Contre les Acériculteurs in Quebec, which feature plenty of chatter on the Conservative contest between their thousands of supporters.

The surprising Conservative membership total boils down to the number of non-traditional conservatives who have taken an interest in the leadership race, said Mr. Obhrai.

“The traditional base was not the base that you were going to win with. You needed to expand your base…that is why you have such a high number of 259,000,” he said. “Most of it is the non-traditional Conservative base.”    



Conservative Party members by province

Source: Conservative Party of Canada

Ontario: 114,508

Alberta: 59,448

B.C.: 34,686

Quebec: 16,412

Saskatchewan: 12,966

Manitoba: 9,243   

Nova Scotia: 4,692

New Brunswick: 3,674

P.E.I.: 1,188

N.L.: 1,194

Yukon: 645     

N.W.T.: 302

Nunavut: 52       

Total: 259,010

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