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CPC leadership: Bernier’s to lose? Not quite, say insiders

By Chelsea Nash      

Most say they would bet on Maxime Bernier, but there’s ‘still room for the underdog,’ as Chris Alexander puts it.

Kevin O'Leary, right, who has endorsed Maxime Bernier, left, says Mr. Bernier will win on the fourth or fifth ballot, followed by Andrew Scheer, Erin O'Toole, and Kellie Leitch. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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Though Maxime Bernier is the apparent frontrunner in the Conservative leadership race, insiders say the voting system still means a Bernier win is not a foregone conclusion.

While Michael Chong’s campaign and Chris Alexander say they see paths to victory for themselves, Deepak Obhrai’s campaign manager says she expects him to be dropped on the first ballot.

“Everybody’s got Bernier [Beauce, Que.] as the frontrunner…but this is a different type of vote,” said Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and a former adviser to Conservative politicians.

The Conservatives are using a ranked-ballot voting system, which makes accurate polling a challenge, according to Chad Rogers, a partner at public affairs agency Crestview Strategy and former Conservative staffer.

“It looks like Max Bernier” will be the new leader of the Conservatives come Saturday night at the party convention in Toronto, Mr. Rogers said, but “it’s all anecdotal.”

Mr. Powers said “people are kind of going on gut—it’s not science.”

Factors like money, organization, and momentum come into play, “and on those fronts, Bernier is doing pretty well. That’s why I think he gets forecast as being on track to win,” Mr. Powers said.

Kevin O’Leary, who dropped out of the race himself earlier this year and threw his support behind Mr. Bernier, said he predicts Mr. Bernier will win “on the fourth or fifth ballot,” followed by Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.), Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), and Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.).

Mr. Rogers said he sees Mr. Scheer as “the strong second.”

John Laschinger, who ran Belinda Stronach’s leadership campaign 13 years ago at the last party leadership convention, said most people think Mr. Bernier will likely win, but if not him, then Mr. Scheer or Mr. O’Toole.

But, Mr. Laschinger said Mr. Bernier might have some challenges overcoming the “first impression” he left on Conservatives, and Canadians, when he left some classified documents at his then-girlfriend’s house when he was foreign affairs minister.

“If they know your name but they don’t like you, you’ve got a problem,” he said. “My sense is that Bernier has got more negatives than either Scheer or O’Toole, and his unfavourability might be higher.”

Beyond the perceived frontrunners, Mr. Rogers said “there’s a middle block of candidates fighting” for support.

A CBC analysis by poll tracker Éric Grenier has Mr. Bernier the favourite to win, but possibly not until the last ballot, with Mr. Scheer and Mr. O’Toole just behind. Though the CBC simulation took into account donations, polling, endorsements, and geography, it acknowledges that the result “after the first ballot is more difficult to figure.”

At this point, Mr. Rogers said it’s too late to make any substantial changes to the outcome of the race. With many of the ballots already mailed into the party, and only 13 in-person voting stations across the country on May 27 aside from the Toronto convention floor, “it’s very hard to reach people this late in the game.”

If candidates are doing anything this week, it will be getting supporters who haven’t yet voted to do so in person on May 27.

“The election’s over,” said Mr. Chong’s (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) communications director, Chisholm Pothier. “Out there, somewhere, the new leader of the Conservative Party is walking around. The voting is done, we just haven’t done the counting,” he said.

That said, he thinks Mr. Chong has a “narrow path to victory.”

That narrow path is largely based on the unpredictability of the whole system, he said, and how much secondary and tertiary support Mr. Chong gets from voters.

Mr. Pothier said the campaign team has been calling Conservative members to gauge support, and has been surprised by some of the voters who say Mr. Chong is their second or third choice, even if their first choice doesn’t appear similar to Mr. Chong.

As for Mr. Bernier possibly winning, Mr. Chisholm said “my gut is that his first ballot numbers aren’t high enough to take him all the way to the end,” and he’s “not sure how solid his second-choice ballot” will be, though he added he didn’t want to present that as “particularly informed.”

Candidate and former immigration minister Chris Alexander said he gave up making predictions long ago, given the “complex” ballot voting system.

Candidate Chris Alexander says he still thinks he’s got a shot at winning the leadership. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

But he said he wouldn’t still be in the race if he didn’t think there was a possibility he could win. 

In an email, he said that “perceived ‘front-runners’” will be “severely constrained” in terms of down-ballot support. Then, candidates “who are basically repackaging Harper-era policies” don’t have a message that’s resonated with both “the legacy rank and file, and certainly not with the…new members.”

“Others are running on very narrow issue sets, or on mere ideology.  Still others simply don’t speak French. All of this leaves room for the underdog who can rise above these existential challenges, over many ballots,” he said.

Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.) is another candidate who could be characterized as an underdog. His spokesperson, Mike Patton, said they “don’t know what to expect” this weekend.

With the voting mostly finished, the top priority now is preparing for Mr. Trost’s final speech on Friday night, when all the candidates will have a last chance to speak to members.

‘There’s so many candidates, and the question is, the average voter, how far down the ballot will they mark? Will a lot of them mark 10, or will they mark three?” Mr. Patton said.

Mr. Patton said whoever the next leader ends up being, Mr. Trost and his staunchly socially conservative campaign will have made a difference for that demographic.

“Even those who are not traditional social conservatives have made reasonable comments about including social conservatives in the process going forward,” Mr. Patton said.

Mr. Obhrai’s (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.) campaign is going into the weekend with a similar mindset. Priti Obhrai-Martin, Mr. Obhrai’s campaign manager and daughter, said she anticipates her candidate will get dropped on the first ballot.

“For us, the campaign wasn’t just about Deepak,” she said. “It was the message of making a wider tent…What we have done is we have shown what the brand of the Conservative Party could be,” she said.

Deepak Obhrai’s campaign manager, Priti Obhrai-Martin, says she expects Mr. Obhrai will be dropped on the first ballot. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

And, while Mr. Obhrai is “a Conservative through and through,” Ms. Obhrai-Martin said he might have some trouble following Ms. Leitch if she were to become leader. The two candidates have clashed during the race because of Ms. Leitch’s proposal to screen visitors to Canada for Canadian values. Mr. Obhrai, an immigrant to Canada himself, said he received some racist emails from Ms. Leitch’s supporters.

Mr. Bernier tweeted on the weekend a photo of himself wearing a scarf emblazoned with Mr. Obhrai’s logo and sitting on his iconic motorcycle, as both candidates smiled and gave the thumbs-up.

Asked if he had to bet on someone, Mr. Powers said he doesn’t bet. “I believe at this moment, Bernier’s probably in the best position, but can he pass the finish line?” he said.

Mr. Powers said he thinks “predictions have been dangerous in this leadership race,” because any predictions made this far have been wrong. “Before December people were predicting candidates would drop out—never happened,” he said. “Some were predicting O’Leary would steamroll to victory. That obviously didn’t happen.”

Mr. Rogers also preferred to err on the side of caution, though he said Mr. Bernier has a few advantages that could lead him to victory.

For one thing, Mr. Bernier entered the race early, which gave him a lot of time to introduce “very conservative policy,” Mr. Rogers said. And he was successful at building a “diverse voter base,” and “always built an on-ramp for people,” which could give him down-ballot support from voters who have other candidates as their first choice.



The voting process

One week ago, the Conservative Party said it had received nearly a third of all eligible votes by mail, though undoubtedly more ballots have arrived since then.

All mailed ballots must arrive to the party’s central receiving centre in Vaughan, Ont. by 5 p.m. on Friday, May 26 in order to be included in the count.

And, on the day of the vote count, Saturday, May 27, the party is offering in-person voting in Etobicoke, at the Toronto Congress Centre, where the event is being held. The party is anticipating roughly 2,000 people to attend the event.

Members from anywhere in Canada can cast their votes in Etobicoke, without restrictions of ridings. However, at the 13 other in-person voting stations dispersed across the country, they have to be a member of certain ridings in order to vote there.

Some candidates, including perceived frontrunners Mr. Bernier and Mr. Scheer, are hosting “voting parties” as part of their get-out-the-vote strategies in the final weeks of the race, wherein they offer to photocopy voters’ IDs and mail the ballots for them. 

On the 27th, when the votes are tallied, members will be able to vote at one of the in-person voting stations as long as their riding has been assigned to one. Not all ridings in Canada have access to an in-person voting station. Even if members do decide to go to a voting station near them, they need to bring the ballot they received in the mail with them. The only place where there will be replacement ballots for all ridings will be at the Toronto Congress Centre.

Members do not need to be registered for the convention in order to go to the venue and vote.

At a technical briefing in Ottawa, party officials said they estimated roughly only 20 per cent of votes would be cast in person, and the other 80 per cent would be submitted by mail.

On Saturday, the day the new party leader is to be crowned, the party aims to announce the result of the first round between 5:45 and 6 p.m. The vote results will be in percentage points, not individual vote numbers, as the votes are not counted equally.

Each riding is worth 100 points, and votes are tallied by riding. If a candidate wins 56 per cent of the vote in one riding, they are awarded 56 points.

If there is no winner on the first round of ballots, the counting will continue, dropping the candidate with the least amount of points and redistributing their votes to the candidate indicated as the second choice on those ballots.

A candidate needs 50 per cent plus one of the percentage points to win.

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