Why won't anyone quit the Tory leadership race?

The field is so crowded, policy talk is being drowned out. But the party's peculiar voting system ensures it's still anyone's race to win.

Conservative Party leader candidates, from left, Lisa Raitt, member of parliament (MP), Andrew Saxton, former member of parliament (MP), Chris Alexander, former minister of immigration, Rick Peterson, venture capitalist, Brad Trost, member of parliament (MP), Andrew Scheer, member of parliament (MP), Michael Chong, member of parliament (MP), Erin O'Toole, member of parliament (MP), and Steven Blaney, former minister of public safety, participate in the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

(Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There’s a low-grade peevishness in the air, as though everyone is sweating through their shirts at an overcrowded cocktail party where they’re positive everyone else has overstayed their welcome. At this point, the most relevant question hovering over the Conservative leadership race may not be about policy, future direction or winnability—none of which anyone can discuss in detail, with 14 voices vying for airtime—but “Why won’t any of these people go home?”

In the last couple of weeks, two candidates have publicly mused about the need for people to bow out—while being clear that they should not be among them. Lisa Raitt argued there are seven people—she refused to name them, beyond counting herself among them—who should be part of the conversation about the future of the party. Brad Trost, meanwhile, has written to Tory HQ suggesting candidates get a refund on part of their $50,000 registration fee if they drop out.

But while the race may be suffering from a breadth that undermines its depth, the quirks of the voting mean almost anything is possible at the leadership convention in Toronto at the end of May. No one is dropping out simply because there’s no reason to do so yet, and plenty of reasons to stick around.

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The peculiarities of the voting procedure are likely doing a lot to discourage quitters. Anyone who is a party member by March 28 can vote for the new leader; votes can be cast by mail or at polling stations across the country on May 27, the final day of the convention. The vote is by ranked ballot, but there is only space for members to rank the top 10 of the 14 current candidates. To ensure each riding across the country has equal clout, regardless of membership, each riding is worth 100 points. So, the 50 per cent-plus-one needed to win the leadership amounts to 16,901 points.

If, on the first ballot count, no candidate reaches that—a virtual certainty in a crowded race without a dominant frontrunner—then the last-place candidate is dropped and their ballots are re-distributed based on who their supporters chose second. It proceeds like this until someone hits the 50 per cent-plus-one threshold.

An official with one of the campaigns says as they see it, the two frontrunners—Kevin O’Leary and Maxime Bernier—also lead the pack in negatives, or people who say they would never choose them. And that means they are unlikely to draw second-place votes. This campaign doesn’t foresee enough secondary votes from supporters of the bottom crop of candidates to put anyone over the top. So, to them, all the action is in the second tier—Raitt, Andrew Scheer, Erin O’Toole and Michael Chong—all of whom are fighting for a similar market. Whoever gets dropped first in that group will see their support cascade to the others, and so on, this official predicts—meaning there could be a lane to victory right up the middle, for whoever leads that second tier.

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Kellie Leitch is an aberration here, because as her support has faltered badly in recent weeks, she’s dropped from frontrunner to B-list, but the extreme way she’s positioned herself will likely make it tough for her to draw secondary support, too.

David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, isn’t convinced anyone in that second tier—the “traditional Tory wing”—could draw enough support in a party he believes is still dominated by Reform and Canadian Alliance factions. If it comes down to O’Leary and Bernier as the consistent frontrunners, neither has social conservative chops, so it will be interesting to see where that constituency—currently captured by Brad Trost, Pierre Lemieux and Scheer—lands, he says.

Bernier is already trying to woo those voters, announcing he would re-open the abortion debate if that’s what MPs wanted. Coletto predicts that once membership closes and the candidates shift into mobilization mode, there will be an avalanche of similar overtures and attempts to direct secondary support. “I’m going to be fascinated by April and May, what these candidates are saying to members,” he says.

For the iPolitics CPC Leadership Tracker, Mainstreet Research has been running 1,000 simulated ballot scenarios each week, testing out every permutation of how to vote could unfold. Their results suggest May 27 could be a very long day. “In every single one, it goes the full 14 counts,” says Quito Maggi, president and CEO of the public research firm. “Never mind on the first count, I don’t think anyone is going to win it until the last count.” But that doesn’t mean the eventual outcome is wide open; in their simulations, Maggi says Kevin O’Leary wins 68 per cent of the time and Maxime Bernier 32 per cent of the time. The average gap between them is 2.2 per cent.

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What’s more, in these test runs, Maggi doesn’t see big swings as the lower-tier candidates are knocked out. “Their votes get redistributed and very few people leap over other people and grow, because the majority of the candidates have a very widely distributed second and third choice,” he says.

If half a dozen of the bottom candidates drop out before the vote, that would put about 10 per cent of supporters back in play, according to Mainstreet’s latest poll. That could reshape the race—or, Maggi cautions, it could just shrink the voter pool. His polling shows a lot of ambivalence on subsequent choices; about 30 per cent say they’re undecided on their second choice and over half for their third, meaning a lot of people may not bother to vote if their candidate drops out in advance.

This eggs-all-in-one-basket support could also result in “ballot exhaustion,” in which people scribble their preferred choice in the No. 1 spot, followed by nine blanks, so that their ballot is dead after their candidate is knocked out. Given that each riding is worth the same 100 points, that means that in ridings with few Conservative members, each person who stays home or fills out an exhausted ballot increases the mathematical clout of everyone else, Maggi says.

Which means—again—that it’s impossible to game out what will happen in this race. And why would anyone give up in the face of that?

“As the Plinko chip pings around down the board, you don’t know what’s going to end up in your column,” says Andrew MacDougall, once a director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper. Even the frontrunners don’t have an obvious path to victory, he says, so if candidates polling lower want to throw their support behind someone in hopes of some appreciative back-scratching down the road, it’s tough to pick a winner now.

The Conservative party may need to re-evaluate this format before the next leadership race, MacDougall says. Even with some interesting and divergent policy proposals on the table—Chong’s carbon tax and Bernier’s desire to dismantle supply management, for example—the very format that has kept so many people in the running has cannibalized the discussion. “The whole fact that there are so many people in this race has kept us from talking about things that might make people decide for one or the other: what of policies, how are we going to win?” MacDougall says. “I think the party missed that soul-searching policy chance because of the sheer volume of people.”

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