If all the CPC needs to do is embrace Liberal-style policy and rhetoric (O’Toole’s strategy), then why would they be doing so much better under Harper’s hypothetical return?
There’s no doubt that the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party are different.
Sure, they are both part of the political establishment, and they both often are beholden to the same elites, but the average CPC MP is far more conservative than the average Liberal MP.
The CPC is successful in large part because it represents a market (Conservative Canadians), that was – until recently – not represented by anyone else.
Anywhere between 30-40% of Canadians are conservative-leaning, and while that means different things to different people, a basic belief in the importance of fiscal & personal responsibility, limited government, individual freedom, respect for Canada’s history and traditions, and support for the values of Western Civilization are key components that unite many conservative people in this country.
So, if the Conservative Party does a decent job of matching with the views of conservative-leaning Canadians, there is a good chance of success.
We saw that in 2019, when the CPC, despite Andrew Scheer not being the most charismatic politician, was able to win the popular vote and at least bring Trudeau down to a minority government (though the fact that Trudeau still narrowly won after the ‘blackface’ revelation is appalling).
In 2019, the CPC won 34% of the vote, not far off from the 36% and 38% they won in 2006 and 2008, when they won minority governments.
Since then however, the party has been struggling – particularly since Erin O’Toole become the leader.
O’Toole ran as a ‘True Blue’ Conservative, a message that resonated and vaulted him into first place over perceived front-runner Peter MacKay.
Dr. Leslyn Lewis ran on a strongly conservative platform, and did quite well, including very strong results in the Western heartland of the CPC base.
Derek Sloan also garnered significant support, with many social conservatives backing him.
During that race, O’Toole positioned himself as a defender of Sloan, and as someone who recognized that social conservatives had an important place in the CPC, despite not being a social conservative himself.
O’Toole also repeatedly pledged to repeal the carbon tax, and signed his name to a Canadian Taxpayers Federation pledge to not bring in his own carbon tax.
Of course, we know how all of this turned out.
O’Toole and his people used a pathetically-weak and manipulative pretext to remove Sloan, and O’Toole brought in a carbon tax that may in fact be worse than the Liberal one, since – rather than giving out direct rebates people can spend on whatever they want – the O’Toole plan instead takes your money and puts into an account that you can only spend on government-approved items.
It’s the same kind of nanny-state, government-knows-best garbage that so many conservatives oppose, so for the CPC to push it caused serious damage to the party.
The CPC has also become more politically-correct, bowing down to the neo-com, ‘woke’ narrative on more and more issues.
All the things mentioned above have been part of what is a CPC ‘strategy’ to ‘trade in’ right-wing voters for centrist voters.
The idea (if you can call it that), is to change the CPC dramatically into a centrist party, abandoning actual conservative ideas while still calling yourself a conservative party, in the hope that enough conservative voters will go along with it, and enough centrist voters will buy into it.
Of course, as I mentioned at the outset, the CPC and Liberals are very different parties, and O’Toole can’t simply wish that away.
It is likely that the CPC would have morphed even more into a Liberal-lite party, if not for some internal resistance to what O’Toole is doing.
And yet, O’Toole’s strategy has gone far enough that we can gleam some indication of how it’s working out:
According to poll aggregator 338Canada.com, the Liberals are polling at 35% in the average of all the polls, with the CPC at 28.4%, the NDP at 19.7, the Bloc at 7.4%, the Greens at 6%, and the PPC at 2.5%.
The best poll for the Conservatives (Angus Reid, who generally had the Conservatives leading the Liberals in the Scheer era), has them 2 points behind, while most others have them closer to 10% points behind the Liberals.
Many polls put the CPC closer to the NDP than they are to the Liberals, and O’Toole is even now being beaten by Jagmeet Singh in polls that ask who would be the best PM.
And that last point is very important.
To the extent that the CPC still has even a small hope of victory, it is despite O’Toole, not because of him.
The ‘Conservative’ brand, in the sense of a large political party that has governing experience and represents the views of conservative Canadians, is a stronger brand than the Erin O’Toole brand.
For example, the Leger poll shows the Liberals leading the CPC by 5% points (34%-29%).
Yet, when asked who the best choice for PM would be, 25% pick Trudeau, 19% pick Singh, and just 13% picked O’Toole.
This shows that people are voting ‘conservative,’ not ‘O’Toole’.
The CPC brand has some some residual power, while the O’Toole brand is a negative force for the CPC.
An indictment of O’Toole’s strategy
All of this is evidence that O’Toole’s strategy of trying to shift away from conservative voters to win centrist voters is having the predictable impact – an impact I warned about quite some time ago:
O’Toole is losing the voters he has, and failing to gain new ones.
In short, Conservatives are being demoralized by what O’Toole is doing, while centrist voters don’t buy into O’Toole as being any ‘different’ from previous CPC leaders.
After all, if you really hate conservatives, you will never vote for a party with the name ‘conservative,’ no matter how much their leader tries pandering to you.
And if you are a conservative, you will certainly start to consider other options if the supposed ‘conservative party of Canada’ starts abandoning what you hold dear.
And that brings us to a fascinating survey by Innovative Research.
In their most recent poll, they asked Canadians who they would vote for if an election were held today.
The result was 41% for the Liberals, 27% for the CPC, 17% for the NDP, 6% for the Bloc, 6% for the Greens, 3% for the PPC, and 1% for the Maverick Party.
That gives the Liberals a 14% point lead, a lead which would all but guarantee a Trudeau majority, and would likely see the CPC losing seats even in Western Canada.
Then, the poll asked how people would vote if Stephen Harper was the current leader of the CPC.
The results changed.
37% said they would vote Liberal, compared to 32% who would vote CPC. 16% said they would vote NDP, 6% for the Bloc, 5% for the Greens, 2% for the PPC, and less than 1% for the Maverick Party.
With Harper leading the CPC, the Liberal margin over the Conservatives falls from 14% to just 5%.
Note as well how both the PPC and Maverick Party lose support in that scenario, showing that some of the splintering from the CPC isn’t due to the CPC ‘brand,’ but due to the current perception of O’Toole.
But most notable of all is the Liberal support number.
If it was true that the CPC needs to become ‘more centrist’ to gain votes, how does that explain the Liberals dropping from 41% to 37% with Harper as the hypothetical CPC leader?
Harper was never seen as a very centrist leader, and in fact spent much of his political career fending off accusations that he was ‘too right-wing.’
Harper would certainly – in rhetoric and in policy – not be as ‘centrist’ as O’Toole.
Could you see Harper having flipped on the carbon tax?
I doubt it.
So, to see a section of Liberal supporters who would become CPC voters if Harper returned tells us that the current problems facing the CPC stem from O’Toole’s failing strategy.
It also, ironically, gives him a clearer understanding of how he may be able to at least partially strengthen his incredibly weak position:
He needs to ignore the advice of the establishment media and instead put forth some real conservatism, including a plan to balance the budget sooner rather than later (promising to balance in a decade is meaningless), offer to bring back Derek Sloan, reach out to PPC supporters, take a stronger stand against the abuse of power we’ve seen from governments of all political stripes over the past year and a half, and reverse his carbon tax betrayal (acknowledging that he listened to conservatives who feel betrayed would go a long way).
Would that guarantee a win, or guarantee a fix to all of the problems facing the CPC?
No, but it would at least move things back in the right direction, reconsolidating the CPC base and giving them a fighting chance going into the election.