With 14 debates and a record-setting 259,000 memberships now logged in the history books, the Conservative leadership race has entered the home stretch.
Exactly one month from tomorrow in Toronto, the votes will be tallied and the party that has only ever known one permanent leader — Stephen Harper — will decide who is best suited to guide it into the next federal election, and possibly beyond.
Before his shock departure from the race Wednesday, front-runner Kevin O’Leary had drawn criticism for failing to even show up to several debates.
In other words, it has not been a smooth ride.
As the leadership hopefuls got set for their final debate on Wednesday night, experts say the challenge for those left standing will be to build name recognition in the final four weeks of the campaign, while attracting enough broad support within the party to ensure victory.
“Unless you follow politics, you don’t know who these people are.”
Even Quebec MP and former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier, now the presumptive front-runner with O’Leary’s endorsement, still isn’t widely recognized across the country, Marland noted.
Whoever wins on May 27 will immediately need to start reaching out and connecting with Canadians if the Conservatives have any hope of forming government in 2019, he said.
“I know a lot of people who voted for the Liberals and Justin Trudeau because Justin Trudeau had a brand-name recognition to him. They never picked up the Liberal Party of Canada platform.”
According to Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, it’s fairly unlikely we’ll see more dropouts like O’Leary before May 27.
“They’ve already put up their money, so why should they drop out now? I don’t know. They don’t have anything to gain,” he said.
With O’Leary out, Bernier may now have a sufficiently strong lead to win, Wiseman predicted, but there are a lot of variables to consider.
Ranked ballots, for instance, mean that being the second (or even third) choice for a majority of members may be more useful than being the first choice for a smaller slice of the party.
And then there’s turnout. The Conservatives say they have 259,010 paid members who are eligible to vote — a stunning increase of over 150,000 members since the beginning of January. But in the 2004 race that saw Stephen Harper claim the leadership, only a third of the membership actually cast a ballot.
It’s unclear if the turnout will be any higher this time around, Wiseman said.
WATCH: Kevin O’Leary drops out of Conservative leadership race
If that weren’t enough, there is yet another layer of complexity. The party’s electoral system means that ridings — not individual votes — matter most.
Each riding across Canada is worth 100 points, and its those points that are ultimately tallied to decide the winner. Many ridings have just a handful of Conservative members, while others may have thousands upon thousands. They are all weighted equally at 100 points, so a savvy candidate will go after the ones that require convincing 14 people — not 4,000 — to vote for them.
“This is why Belinda Stronach ran second against Stephen Harper,” Wiseman recalled. “She didn’t speak a word of French, how come she ran second? How come she beat Tony Clement? It’s because she had money and she hired organizers who went into what we can only call ‘rotten boroughs’ and signed up a few members.”