In the last two Conservative leadership races, the frontrunners stumbled before reaching the finish line. This time, however, the front runners are only showing signs of gaining ground.
Swelling audience numbers and the support of MPs are no strong guarantees for success, but they certainly can’t hurt. And Pierre Poilievre – with his populist calls frustrated with the government’s “gatekeeper” and calls to make Canada “the freest country in the world” – did well on both steps.
Poilievre has tweeted photos of demonstrations in British Columbia and Ontario that were attended by hundreds of people. His visits to Calgary on Tuesday and Edmonton on Thursday are expected to attract even more people.
“They are unprecedented in leadership [race],” said Melanie Paradis, a veteran of the two previous Conservative leaderships who served as deputy campaign director for former leader Erin O’Toole.
“He has an interesting narrative. It’s important to appreciate that.”
Thanks to the thousands of people waiting outside (in the rain) because our place capped my Langley rally at 500.
You are a hero of freedom.
Poliievre’s campaign theme was freedom. His demonstrations targeted government policies that he said limited those freedoms – from vaccine mandates to carbon taxes to government policies on inflation. Poliievre promised that if he became prime minister, he would stop all that.
His supporters praised Poliievre for being an unrepentant conservative. Many liked his willingness to bluntly criticize and even mock the Liberals.
Detractors fear he will deepen divisions within the party and state. Some have gone so far as to warn the Conservatives “Trumpify” if Poilievre wins.
Some strong truths in this string. However, there is still plenty of time in the leadership campaign for moderate conservatives to counter the Trumpification of the Canadian Conservative Party. https://t.co/dgFJXNCgsM
The recent Conservative leadership contest was not good for the frontrunner. Maxime Bernier was expected to win the leadership in 2017, only to be knocked out by Andrew Scheer.
In 2020, Peter MacKay is widely seen as the frontrunner as he has held a string of prominent cabinet posts and helped found the modern Conservative Party. He lost to O’Toole on the third vote.
Poilievre benefited from several key differences between this race and the last two, said Paradis.
In 2017, Paradis said, his party did not practice when it came to running the leadership race. That allowed the race to drag on for more than a year, he said, which robbed him of his sense of urgency. It also has more than a dozen candidates, dividing the attention and resources of party activists.
In the final race, leadership contenders had to grapple with the pandemic’s limitations on gathering size, which undermined outreach efforts. Now, says Paradis, many Canadians enjoy spending time with other people.
Poliievre also has the upper hand in caucus support. More than 50 lawmakers publicly supported him, compared with just 11 for Quebec candidate and former prime minister Jean Charest and six for lawmaker Leslyn Lewis, who is running for leader for a second time.
Former Conservative senior aide Garry Kellar said he saw parallels between Poilievre’s campaign performance and that of his main political foe, Justin Trudeau. The large crowds the budding Liberal leader made at events at 401 highway in Ontario during the 2015 election campaign offered the first hint of the Canadian Liberal Party’s re-victory over Conservative Stephen Harper that year.
“[Trudeau] get a huge crowd for Canadian politics with a moment’s notice. You can’t fake that. I see a lot of similarities with Pierre’s campaign,” said Kellar, vice president at StrategyCorp and former chief of staff John Baird, former Harper cabinet minister and campaign adviser to Poilievre.
The idea of similarities between Trudeau and Poilievre may seem odd to some, but they both manage to get people talking and attract supporters new to party politics, Kellar said.
Converting voter turnout into votes
He said Liberals should remember the Conservatives who laughed at Trudeau in 2015 and take Poilievre seriously as a candidate.
One of the deciding factors in the Conservative leadership race may be whether Poilievre and his team can translate rally participation into voter turnout.
Large crowds can project momentum and provide an “intimidating factor” for opponents, says Ric Grenier, founder of election analysis website TheWrit.ca – but they’re not the end goal.
“The most important thing is to make sure those people actually sign up for membership,” he said.
“If you become very successful, enrolling people over the Internet, through social media, then the fact that you don’t have this huge crowd may not really matter.”
Candidates have until June 3 to register new members.
Getting supporters to take up party membership is one thing. Getting them to actually choose is another.
Paradis, who remains neutral in the leadership contest, points out that in the recent Conservative leadership election, only about 60 percent of eligible party voters actually cast ballots.
While no one else in the race demonstrated Poilievre’s ability to attract crowds, there were other ways to manage the run for leadership.
Former Ontario MP and Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown is known for his political determination. Paradis says that while Brown has been relatively quiet on social media these days, he works on the phone every day from early morning until well past midnight, reaching out to potential supporters, while attending various events during the day.
“Nobody really talks about what Patrick does and I think he’s fine with that,” he said.
Lewis has tweeted a photo of himself speaking to the crowd while touring the Prairie province. He also demonstrated strength by becoming the first candidate to officially secure the Conservative vote by sending the required $300,000 in fundraisers and signatures from supporters.
Lewis and his team are expected to take advantage of the lessons learned during his previous leadership, Kellar said.
Charest confronts Poilievre through the media
The candidate who has commented the most on Poilievre to date is Charest, who didn’t see many crowds during the race. Instead, he had taken the fight to Poliievre through the media.
Over the weekend, Charest told interviewers that Poilievre’s support for the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” – which occupied part of downtown Ottawa in February to demand an end to all pandemic restrictions – should disqualify Poilievre from becoming prime minister.
“The choice is this – either we do American-style politics, a politics of assault and division, or we do politics like we do in Canada,” Charest said in French during an appearance on Radio-Canada’s Everyone is talking about it.
“Mr. Poilievre, who is a legislator … supports a blockade that has very direct consequences on the Canadian economy and which is illegal. The law is not like a buffet where we choose what we like and what we don’t like.”
Best supporter and longtime Conservative MP Ed Fast was asked by reporters last week about the crowd that came out to hear Poilievre speak.
“I don’t think we need to stir up anger in Canada. I don’t think we should capitalize on that. I think what we need right now is someone who can heal the nation,” Fast said.
Kellar rejected the notion that Poliievre was divisive. While Ottawa lawmakers have made some sharp attacks on his rival in the race, Kellar said he sees it as a candidate defending his conservative principles.
“[Poilievre] is trying to make headlines and he’s trying to be very clear here about who he is,” he said.
With months remaining before the September vote, Paradis warned against drawing early conclusions about the momentum. So many important things in the campaign, from raising money to garnering supporters, happened away from the public eye, he said.
“No one really sees what’s really going on in this race. And that’s why people are surprised all the time.”
“Geek zombie. Subtly charming social media scholar. Beer enthusiast. Lifelong bacon pioneer.”