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Column: Poilievre is drawing a crowd in Conservative leadership race

John Cairns’ News Watch - All the talk in the Conservative race is about Poilievre’s rallies.
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The Conservative leadership race is on full blast and Pierre Poilievre is making news over his crowds.

NORTH BATTLEFORD - On Feb. 2, Erin O’Toole was removed as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada by a vote of his Conservative MPs. The Conservative leadership race was officially on.

A few days later, the race pretty much ended. Pierre Poilievre announced in a social media video that he was entering the contest. 

Since then, the rest of the field has pretty much had to play catch-up, as Poilievre has taken his freedom-oriented campaign to the country. 

I thought I would just provide a bit of analysis about the state of the contest, which seems like a one-man race so far despite the large number of declared candidates. What we are seeing is definite Pierre-mania, which reminds you of the “mania” associated with another Pierre back in 1968.

All the talk from the national media is about the big rallies that Poilievre has put on. Not long ago, Poilievre held a rally in Lindsay, Ont. A thousand people showed up. 

Soon after, Poilievre held another rally in Vernon, B.C. and a thousand people showed up there, too. Vancouver, same thing: 1,600 people showed up.

Last week, Poilievre held another rally in Calgary and this was the biggest one yet. They estimated 5,000 people showed up. So many people came the campaign was showing off pictures of how big the crowd was.

Then Poilievre held a rally in Edmonton. Same thing: four or five thousand people showed up.

Political reporters are beside themselves about how big these crowds are. David Akin posted this on Twitter: “I’ve been covering leadership races, provincial and federal elections for nearly 20 years. The crowds @PierrePoilievre is attracting to his rallies — they’re off the charts, folks. Do his opponents in #CPCLdr, let alone his #LPC#NDP opponents have an answer to this?”

Yes, they’re off the charts — by Canadian standards. Other democratic countries around the world tend to stage much bigger rallies in general, particularly this Trump character south of the border.

Normally, the typical Canadian campaign rally consists of trying to cram a couple of hundred people into a room to make it look for the television cameras as if there is a big crowd. 

Why is Poilievre getting such big crowds? Part of it has to do with the fact people see Poilievre as authentic. You know where he stands. During the truckers' protest, Poilievre came out strongly in support of the truckers and against the mandates.

Poilievre has also been effective with social media. Anyone remember seeing his video in Saskatoon where he stood by the statue of a young John Diefenbaker selling a newspaper to Wilfred Laurier? He made the point that these two politicians from different political persuasions actually had something in common — their love of freedom. Which is what he stands for.

Last week, Poilievre did another video where he tackled the issue of affordability of housing in this country. He stood outside of a small rundown-looking house in a Vancouver neighbourhood that was being listed for, get this, $4.88 million. 

You have to be a millionaire to buy this puny house! How ridiculous is that? 

Videos like this explain in a nutshell why Poilievre is getting the crowds. He’s hit a nerve. People are fed up with the skyrocketing price of living in this country, people are fed up with COVID-19 overreach, people are fed up with the ongoing attack on the country’s oil and gas sector. 

No lack of would-be leaders

The Conservative leadership race is on full blast. As of this writing there were about 12 candidates who claimed to be running for leader. Of those, the four who look the most serious are Poilievre, Jean Charest, Patrick Brown and Leslyn Lewis. 

Charest, of course, needs no introduction as former federal PC leader and former “Liberal” Quebec premier. 

Lewis ran in the last leadership race in 2020 and was competitive, actually finishing in first place in the voting from Saskatchewan. She stands to be the most socially conservative among the top contenders and should attract many of the supporters who were with her last time.

Brown, who, like Charest, is on the moderate side of the spectrum, is best known for his short and rocky tenure as leader of the Ontario PCs, resigning under a cloud of #MeToo allegations. But before that he was a federal MP, and lately has made a political comeback as mayor of Brampton. Brown is believed to be well-organized, particularly in the greater Toronto area, and he hasn’t been afraid to go scorched-earth in attacking Poilievre. 

Poilievre, meanwhile, has similarly gone scorched-earth on his opponents. He accused Charest of being a “liberal” and pointed out his past support for carbon taxes and tax hikes. Charest, for his part, has denounced Poilievre for American-style politics and said Poilievre’s support of the truckers' blockade has disqualified him from office. 

We are still in early days. There are a few ways to gauge how this race is going for each of the candidates. One measure you don’t want to rely on is the ridiculous polling of “Conservative voters across the country.” Most of these respondents are just regular folks who aren’t party members, who don’t give a hoot about the leadership race.

Here are the real measurements to watch that will give you a far better idea about who is actually winning:

  1. Membership sales: It’s usually a good sign if you’ve sold the most memberships to people. In fact, when Patrick Brown ran for the Ontario PC leadership, he stunned everyone by selling a massive number of memberships, and they showed up to elect him leader over the perceived frontrunner, Christine Elliott. Back in the 2004 Conservative leadership race won by Stephen Harper, Belinda Stronach was well-financed and well-organized, but absolutely bombed in membership sales. That was also a telling sign. 
  2. In the end, though, you still need to deliver the members to vote, and for that you need fundraising. Fundraising numbers are another key sign that points to strong organization. Plus, this is coming from party members who are putting their money where their mouth is.
  3. MP endorsements: This is not a perfect measure, because ultimately it is the membership that decides, not MPs, and there are plenty of examples of leadership candidates winning without the most caucus endorsements. Take it with a grain of salt. But endorsements speak to establishment and organizational backing. If you have the most members of caucus backing a candidate in a federal or provincial leadership race, chances are they also have supporters also backing the candidate and that could help persuade others in their ridings. 
  4. Last, but far from least — did I mention the crowds? 

I notice excuses are already flying from the other campaigns about the Poilievre crowds. Crowds mean nothing, they say. Most of these people aren’t party members, they claim. How many are actually going to go vote for leader? 

Let’s do a deep analysis. I noticed on Twitter a photo posted of a leadership event for Jean Charest and it looked like a modest crowd of about 70 people were there. 

This doesn’t seem impressive, but here’s what might have transpired: 

Charest would give a speech, take questions and probably have time to speak individually to everyone who showed up. Chances are most of them are already voting members of the party, but you can bet there are campaign volunteers there ready to sell memberships to anyone else who showed up.

That’s pretty much 70 leadership votes in the bag for Charest. Look at this, the Charest supporters will say: personal retail politics is far more effective than holding a rally in front of a thousand gawkers. 

Here’s the problem. Let’s say only one-fifth of the people who show up at one of these run-of-the-mill Poilievre rallies bother to vote in the leadership race.

By my math, that’s still 200 people voting for Poilievre, which swamps Charest’s 70 people.

In reality, the Poilievre campaign is getting far more than just 200 votes. They are likely signing up as party members almost everyone who walks in the door.

These rally attendees look motivated. They are fed up with vaccine mandates, they are fed up with the carbon tax, they are fed up with inflation. They are fed up with the CBC. 

Oh, and another thing — I read that when he was in Edmonton, Poilievre had a meet and greet and was personally shaking hands with everyone in the long lineup. Everyone. That must have taken him all night. 

How do the rest of the field compete with that?

When was the last time a Conservative politician attracted crowd sizes where people are lined up outside a big convention hall waiting to get in? 

Diefenbaker days? Reform Party days with Preston Manning or Stockwell Day? Maybe Stephen Harper, but even with Harper I don’t remember people lining up to see him the way they do for Poilievre. 

More recently, prominent Conservatives have been lucky simply to fill a room. Remember when Andrew Scheer was campaigning in the 2019 election? There were lots of stories about how sparsely-attended his events were. I saw for myself the video of his events on YouTube. Scheer couldn’t draw flies. 

Erin O’Toole? Don’t get me started. During the 2021 pandemic vote, he did a lot of his campaigning by video from Ottawa.

Having to fight off the big crowds is a nice problem for any Conservative politician in this country to have.