MONTREAL—If the Conservative leadership vote took place tomorrow, front-runner Pierre Poilievre would probably be able to turn his lead into a quasi or definitive first-ballot victory.
But with the vote set for Sept. 10, the Ottawa MP is instead about to spend what could turn out to be the longest three months of his already lengthy political tenure.
With the membership recruitment drive over, the campaign remains Poilievre’s to lose.
But 90 days is an eternity in politics, and recent Conservative campaigns have demonstrated it is one thing to round up members and another to ensure they vote.
In the 2020 leadership vote, almost 100,000 of those who had signed up to cast a ballot failed to do so. That works out to about 40 per cent of the membership.
To stay out of his rivals’ striking distance, Poilievre will have to spend the summer trying to keep his followers engaged.
That will be a game of diminishing returns.
A fair number of his recruits are new to party politics. Many were attracted to his campaign by his overtures to the so-called “Freedom Convoy” and to the people who occupied the national capital earlier this year.
It is in no small part to cement their allegiance that Poilievre recently promised legislation to prevent a future federal government from implementing vaccination mandates.
That commitment went down like a lead balloon among the majority of Canadians — including scores of Conservatives — who supported vaccination mandates over the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That is hardly the only stance that finds Poilievre at odds with most voters, as well as offside with policies pursued by leading Conservatives such as Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Every time he doubles down on his more outlandish pronouncements, be it on vaccines or bitcoin or the Bank of Canada, Poilievre risks doing so at cost to his credibility as a leadership contender and, to a lesser degree, as a potential party leader. It is not every one of his followers who signed up for a spell of disruptive leadership.
If only to avoid having to spend the summer replaying his most polarizing hits, Poilievre must hope either Jean Charest or Patrick Brown decides to bail out of the race before the vote.
They each need the supporters of the other to carve a (narrow) path to an upset victory. But if the name of their preferred candidate is no longer on the ballot, there is no guarantee all of his or her supporters would transfer their allegiance to another contender rather than just shrug the whole thing off.
In 2017, scores of Kevin O’Leary recruits lost interest in the race after he pulled out in favour of Maxime Bernier. That went some way to turn what looked like a done deal for Bernier into a final ballot defeat to Andrew Scheer.
There was a time, earlier in the campaign, when it was widely assumed Charest would pull out rather than risk a humiliating defeat in September.
But that was prior to the debates. They may not make a difference to the outcome of the vote, but they have clearly energized the former premier.
Charest has always loved to campaign, and he tends to thrive in the role of underdog.
Win or lose, this campaign has already granted him the gift of political redemption.
He entered the race under the cloud of a long-standing police investigation dating back to his tenure as premier. But over the past few weeks, his campaign has brought political watchers who normally would not have had a kind word to say about him to find that he benefits greatly from being compared to Poilievre.
If anything, the past three months have served to remind Quebecers and other Canadians that whether one agrees with his policies or not, Charest remains one of the top political talents of the era and a more seasoned contender for a national leadership role than his current competition.
Bottom line: A Charest defeat at the hands of an attack dog on Sept. 10 is more likely to hurt the Conservative brand than to diminish the former premier.
The question of Patrick Brown’s post-campaign future is a more open one. He declared this week he is so convinced a Poilievre-led Conservative party would fail to make gains in the GTA that he would not join his rival’s roster.
In the same breath, Brown left open the option of running again for his current job as Brampton mayor. If he is to stick to municipal politics, the deadline to declare in time for the fall’s municipal elections is Aug. 19.
Until Brown’s intentions are clearer, Poilievre’s campaign will continue to have a strong incentive to cast itself as an unstoppable steamroller — even if that stands to convince many of its recent fans that they can dispense from casting a ballot in September because victory is already in the bag.
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