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Erin O’Toole risks depressing party base without winning new support

The Conservatives face serious risks if they are seen as abandoning or moving too far from their core supporters.

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Spencer Fernando Winnipeg MB
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63 and 23. Those are the numbers that likely have Conservative strategists up at night.

What do they mean? What is the significance?

Well, 63 is the percent of 2019 Conservative voters who have a favourable view of Erin O’Toole, while 23 is the percent who have an unfavourable view. 14 percent are undecided.

That’s according to the new Angus Reid poll, showing O’Toole is the most unpopular federal party leader in the country.

His big problem is that his support within his own party is far weaker than that of the other party leaders. For example, 89 percent of 2019 NDP voters support Jagmeet Singh, while 83 percent of 2019 Bloc voters support Yves-Francois Blanchet.

Even Annamie Paul, the relatively new Green Leader, is doing better within her party than O’Toole, with 65 percent of 2019 Green voters having a favourable view of her.

Justin Trudeau’s numbers are strong among Liberals, with 85 percent of 2019 Liberal voters approving of him.

Notably, this survey was taken between January 20th and January 24th, meaning the bulk of respondents were canvassed after O’Toole booted Derek Sloan. The Conservatives had also spent the previous week trying to move themselves into a more "Liberal-lite" messaging framework.

So what are we seeing here?

Well, it’s one poll, and it’s still early in O’Toole’s tenure as CPC leader.

However, the survey shows that O’Toole is also less popular right now than Andrew Scheer was at a similar time into his CPC leadership stint.

Which means that what we could be seeing is that Erin O’Toole’s rapid attempt to shed the "True Blue" image that won him the party leadership, and the way in which he removed Derek Sloan, has depressed his support base, while not winning over any new voters.

That is the big danger the Conservatives face if they are seen as taking their voters for granted and abandoning conservatism.

Many people will simply never believe the Conservatives when they claim to be moderate (just as many voters will never believe what the Liberals or NDP claim).

And many voters, even if they believe both O’Toole and Trudeau are centrists, will simply vote for the more experienced and photogenic politician, which would be Trudeau.

And for voters seeking something new, who feel the entire system has failed them, Conservatives seeking to be like Liberals won’t win their support either.

Meanwhile, all of that can lead to some Conservative voters staying home, or voting for other options like the PPC or the Maverick Party.

Consider that the biggest factor in the Conservatives winning a majority in 2011 was that many Liberal voters stayed home, or switched to the NDP. The Conservative vote was relatively stable, but the Liberal vote was depressed, giving the Conservatives the margins they needed.

And at the end of the day, this is a numbers game.

Imagine a scenario in which the Conservatives rapidly move to the perceived political centre, and gain 4 points worth of support from "centrist" voters compared to 2019.

That would put them at 38 percent, perhaps within striking distance of a majority.

Yet, what if they lose 4 percent from depressing their own base?

They would be back at 34 percent, and considering the more efficient Liberal vote, would probably lose again.

The real nightmare scenario for the Conservatives, and what the recent Angus Reid poll shows a serious risk of taking place, would be if the Conservatives’ new branding fails among centrist voters, yet still depresses a portion of their party base.

Then, they would fall to 30 percent or less. That means the Liberals could win a majority with just 34-35 percent of the vote.

Thus, the Conservatives face serious risks if they are seen as abandoning or moving too far from their core supporters.

It’s about adding votes to the current party base, not just switching some voters for other voters, and it’s clear that Erin O’Toole has a lot of work ahead if he is to achieve that, with the initial results not looking good at all.

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