As O’Leary bows out of conservative race, Bernier set to take the lead, says U of T expert

Kevin O'Leary
Kevin O'Leary has dropped out of the Conservative Party leadership race (photo by Disney | ABC Television Group Follow via Flickr)

In a surprise move, Kevin O’Leary has dropped out of the Conservative Party leadership race, throwing his support behind Maxime Bernier.

O’Leary cited the lack of support in Quebec as his deciding factor, saying he would not be able to win the general election without it.

With the leadership vote only a month away, U of T News' Romi Levine asked Nelson Wiseman, professor of political science and director of Canadian studies at U of T, and Christopher Cochrane, an associate professor of political science at U of T Scarborough, how his departure will shake up the race.

Does O'Leary's departure surprise you?

Nelson Wiseman: Yes, I think it surprises everyone. I think he decided in the last few days once the numbers were out. This morning, the numbers came out about how many Conservative party members were eligible to vote – about a quarter million – and he knows how many memberships have been sold by his organizers. So he did the math in his head. 

O'Leary is a very polarizing figure and because it's a preferential ballot, he knew he would get a good number of first ballot votes, and he wouldn't get many second ballot votes. Nobody's going to get 50 per cent off the bat. 

He thinks, “Am I going to put in another month? I might get badly embarrassed at the end where I don't even run in the top two or three. I've got other things to do.” By being in the race, he's missing out doing his TV thing. He can't do both at once. You could see he was in the race only part time anyway. 

Chris Cochrane: Yes, I'm not sure what's changed now that wasn't equally true several weeks ago. It strikes me as odd that someone who can't speak French and wouldn't participate in the French debates would all of a sudden come to the realization that they can't win a national election because they need Quebec to win.

The question I would have is what exactly changed in his camp vis-a-vis the road to victory in a federal election. 

Did he stop taking it seriously?

Nelson Wiseman: I thought he took it seriously at the get-go, and as it got going, he thought, “I'm going to win it on my terms, or I'm not going to win it.” 

I heard that he didn't think he had enough support in Quebec – that was always a mystery and that was one area where potentially he could've made gains even though he doesn't speak French and doesn't know anything about Quebec issues. Most of the ridings in Quebec are “rotten boroughs” – the term comes from British history – these are constituencies in which there are virtually no members. Say each constituency is worth 100 points, if you could sign up five members and if you got all of their votes, you got 100 points. That's the same as 10,000 people voting for you in Calgary South-West. 

Chris Cochrane: It's hard for me to get inside his psychology, but my impression is he may well have come to the realization that this is something he doesn't want to do. The reason is I can't see him ever having believed, or the people around him that are advising him believed he would ever be able to make a breakthrough in Quebec.

To me, it looks like somebody who has come to the realization that maybe in fact he couldn't win the leadership race within the party, which is a very real possibility if a lot of entrenched conservatives weren't willing to embrace him either because they felt he was an outsider, or he didn't have that much support from party stalwarts – that may be a good reason to step out of the leadership race.

O'Leary's leadership style was often compared to that of Donald Trump – what made Trump more successful in the leadership race?

Nelson Wiseman: Rules are very important to outcome. Donald Trump could win because there were primaries, and they were first past the post – you just had to get more votes than anybody else. You could win with 38 per cent of the vote. 

That doesn't work in the Conservative leadership – you've got to get 50 per cent. So even had O'Leary gotten the most votes on the first ballot, he wouldn't have won in my opinion. 

Chris Cochrane: Whether or not Trump had any sort of unique contribution to the Republican success in the last election is very much an open question. For the most part, people who have always voted Republican voted Republican.

O'Leary is different. He is an outsider like Trump. He was an affluent business person. He's been in show business. Those were things that resonated. But he doesn't have Trump's speaking style so he doesn't speak in a way that might connect with folks. Also, the big difference with O'Leary is with immigration. O'Leary's a strong supporter of immigration – he didn't draw the same kind of crowd Trump mobilized in the Republican party.

The differences between O'Leary and Trump are quite significant, the differences between Canada and the United States are quite significant – so even a Trump-like candidate wouldn't have won here. 

Do you think Bernier now has the best chance at Conservative leadership?

Nelson Wiseman: I thought that Bernier was the odds-on favourite from even before the time that [Stephen] Harper resigned. That is because he seemed to be openly campaigning for the leadership from the moment he entered parliament. 

If you asked me yesterday who was going to win, I'd say Bernier. However, I am somewhat surprised by how strong Andrew Scheer and especially Erin O'Toole have become. What I'm seeing in this race is that I'm not sure there is an establishment candidate. It really is fragmented, and it's simply a matter of who goes out and sells the most memberships and gets those people to actually vote. 

I think Bernier has the sufficiently big lead that he could get over the top. 

Chris Cochrane: It's hard to say. Based on what I've seen from Maxime Bernier, I don't think he's the person who's going to beat Justin Trudeau.

The hope is, if he can make a breakthrough in Quebec and pick up some seats for the fiscal conservatives in Ontario and keep the West, he'll be well positioned to at least be a competitive candidate. I don't think he'll be a disaster for the party. I think one of the risks for the Liberals in the next election is that they suffer from an enthusiasm deficit especially if some of the progressives and young supporters who park their vote or are new to voting defect from the Liberals because they don't feel they're delivering as purely with some of their left-wing promises. 

It's possible the Conservatives could pull off an upset, but I don't think Bernier is the kind of person who is going to be able to draw a lot from the left of the party.


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