Google search data proves it: the Tory leadership race is dull

The search engine giant's data suggests Conservative leadership candidates are having a hard time standing out in the crowded race

(Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Quick: Name all the candidates still standing in the Conservative leadership race. Some Tory insiders are reportedly so disillusioned with the crop currently running that they’re expressing their displeasure with former cabinet ministers like Jason Kenney, John Baird, Peter MacKay and James Moore for staying out of the contest.

Kevin O’Leary’s entry into the race and his exit received plenty of attention, but the leadership contenders as a group seem to have failed to capture the public imagination. On the few occasions the others have grabbed the spotlight, it’s been because of something controversial or offensive they’ve said or done, rather than for the policy ideas they’re putting forth. None has particularly distinguished themselves from the rest of the field.

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READ MORE: How ‘Mad Max’ Bernier went from comic relief to Tory front-runner

Some will no doubt dismiss this analysis as typical mainstream media spin. But its the story being told not by some armchair pundit but by Google search data of the 100 days prior to the last month of the campaign. And that stretch of time for the Conservative leadership campaign stands in contrast to the pattern of the corresponding period of the Liberal leadership race won by Justin Trudeau four years ago.

Google Trends measures relative search interest over time. In the Conservative race, O’Leary produced the two biggest spikes, for himself when he entered the contest and for Maxime Bernier when he left it in favour of the Quebec MP. Kellie Leitch’s attempts to sell a campaign based on “Canadian values” have generated the occasional burst of searches, but her baseline remains low. And though Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole are polling third and fifth respectively, they’re little-searched. The Google Trends tool only allows for five search terms at a time, but none of the rest of the Tory field show up in the upper reaches of the chart when their names are subbed in. (Not even Brad Trost, whose discomfort with “the whole gay thing” barely registered in relative terms).

Contrast that with 2013, when Trudeau consistently led the Liberal race in both polls and online interest. Though the now-Prime Minister’s win was treated as a coronation by observers, the likes of Martha Hall Findlay and Joyce Murray did occasionally manage to pique public interest. Trudeau does dominate the chart from start to finish, though—the closest anyone came to matching him was Marc Garneau, in whom interest only spiked when he announced his departure from the race.

It’s worth noting that an analysis of Google search data against U.S. primary outcomes by The Economist last year found the measure of online interest to be a relatively poor predictor of election outcomes, not least because high volumes can be the result of both support and scandal. But Google Trends also forecast the 2015 Canadian federal and 2016 U.S. presidential elections eerily well. Whatever you think about the wisdom of crowds’ searching proclivities, the Conservative and Liberal leadership races do seem to be charting distinctly different courses.

READ MORE: Google predicted Donald Trump would win the election

Below you’ll find Google Trends charts for the 100 days before the campaign’s last month for both the Conservative and Liberal leadership contests, along with explanations for some of the biggest spikes in search volume during that time. The five names for the Liberals were the top finishers in the voting which concluded on April 14, 2013—Trudeau, Murray, Hall Findlay, and Martin Cauchon—plus Garneau, who ran second in most polls until his withdrawal from the race. The five for the Conservatives were those who lead most in polls before last week: Bernier, O’Leary, Leitch, Scheer, and O’Toole.

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Conservative Party

January 17, 2017: The third leadership debate (and second in French), in Quebec City. Kellie Leitch attacks Maxime Bernier as “an impostor and a liar,” but the debate is overshadowed by Kevin O’Leary’s impending announcement of his candidacy.

January 18, 2017: Kevin O’Leary officially joins the leadership race, claiming to be “the only one that can defeat Trudeau.”

February 1, 2017: A banner calling for the MP to resign and bearing the names of the six victims of the Quebec City terror attack is hung on Kellie Leitch’s Collingwood constituency office. The sign is topped by the words “hate puts us all at risk,” presumably referring to the Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment that the candidate’s touting of “Canadian values” has been seen to evoke.

February 28–March 1, 2017: A Kellie Leitch Facebook video in which she talks about “Canadian values” goes viral.

March 17, 2017: Maxime Bernier calls Kevin O’Leary a “loser,” a day after the latter’s campaign claims an unnamed opponent is signing up members unbeknownst to them and/or paying fees on their behalf, both of which contravene party rules.

April 26, 2017: Kevin O’Leary withdraws from the leadership race and endorses Maxime Bernier, saying the latter can win in Quebec.

Liberal Party

December 23, 2012: Justin Trudeau attends a Toronto conference entitled “Reviving the Islamic Spirit” the previous day. A subsequently-withdrawn sponsor’s alleged ties to Hamas drew flak for the candidate, who invoked Wilfrid Laurier in his speech in response.

January 20, 2013: The first leadership debate, in Vancouver. Marc Garneau positions himself as the experienced alternative to Justin Trudeau.

February 2, 2013: The second leadership debate, in Winnipeg. Martha Hall Findlay’s opposition to farm marketing boards and supply management is a rare talking point in an otherwise snoozy event.

February 7, 2013: The Justin Trudeau campaign begins using crowdfunding platform SoapBox to let supporters suggest and support policy ideas, in an early sign of his digital savvy.

February 13, 2013: Marc Garneau makes a direct attack on Justin Trudeau’s policy chops, criticizing him for not having a “coherent vision” and offering only “vague generalities.”

February 17, 2013: Martha Hall Findlay apologizes to Justin Trudeau for invoking his privileged upbringing at the third leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont. the previous day. Marc Garneau also went after Trudeau during the event, questioning his qualifications.

February 28, 2013: Joyce Murray’s campaign gets a boost after Leadnow and Aavaz, organizations that like her advocate electoral co-operation among opposition parties, urge their backers to vote in the leadership race.

March 3, 2013: The fourth leadership debate, in Halifax. Justin Trudeau accuses “other people,” specifically Marc Garneau, of running “top-down, backroom heavy negative campaign.” Joyce Murray’s electoral cooperation plan is also attacked.

March 13, 2013: Marc Garneau withdraws his candidacy, writing in his statement that Justin Trudeau is “poised for a decisive victory.”