Fundraising figures show the Conservative leadership race is far from over

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Regional and ideological divisions will play a decisive role in determining the outcome of the race for the Conservative leadership. Fundraising numbers published last week show us where these fissures lie — and the paths that front-runners Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole will have to take to win.

According to data published by Elections Canada, MacKay is the fundraising leader, with $1,046,000 in donations processed by the Conservative Party to March 31 — a few days after the leadership contest was suspended temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The former cabinet minister from Nova Scotia beat out Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, who raised $785,000. That put both MacKay and O’Toole well ahead of Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis and Ontario MP Derek Sloan, who raised $448,000 and $410,000 respectively.

Four other contestants who failed to qualify for the race had a combined fundraising total of $454,000.

That’s a significant amount of money raised in less than three months. MacKay already has raised more than outgoing leader Andrew Scheer did during the entire eight months of his successful leadership campaign in 2017. O’Toole already has surpassed the fundraising total he recorded during that long contest, in which he placed third.

Both Lewis and Sloan, the two social conservative candidates, have raised more money than the two social conservative standard bearers in the 2017 leadership race — Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux.

Dollars to donors

While MacKay beat O’Toole by more than a quarter of a million dollars in fundraising, O’Toole’s campaign received more individual donations than MacKay’s did, by a margin of 4,686 to 3,538. Sloan also edged out Lewis, with 2,981 individual donations to her 2,941 donations.

Some of those contributions came from people who donated multiple times, however. Removing those, we end up with 4,174 donors for O’Toole, 3,393 for MacKay, 2,566 for Lewis and 2,477 for Sloan.

So who’s really winning the fundraising race? Which is the more predictive number — dollars or donors?

The final stages of some recent federal leadership races show that each candidate’s share of all money raised has had a (slightly) closer and more predictive relationship with the final outcome than their share of the total donors — particularly whenever there was a big gap between the two numbers.

That makes some sense. While it’s good for a candidate to have more individual donors (they’re likely to cast ballots and can become volunteers), the number of party members who vote is much larger than the number who donate.

About 141,000 party members cast ballots in the 2017 leadership contest. O’Toole’s lead over MacKay in the number of donors represents less than one per cent of that number. A well-funded campaign will have an easier time getting its message to the larger pool of non-donating, voting members.

Social conservative vote is key — again

MacKay has received 39 per cent of all the dollars donated to the four candidates officially in the running, followed by O’Toole at 29 per cent, Lewis at 17 per cent and Sloan at 15 per cent. Those sound like plausible first-ballot voting results.

And that suggests that the votes going to Lewis and Sloan on the first ballot could end up deciding the outcome.

The Conservatives use a ranked ballot to determine the outcome of the race, meaning that members can rank each candidate from their first to fourth choices. If no candidate receives a majority of first-choice support (weighted by riding — more on that later), then the last place candidate is dropped and their votes are re-distributed to each of their supporters’ second choices. This process continues until one candidate gets over 50 per cent.

The fundraising numbers show how this could play out. MacKay could end up on top on the first ballot but short of a majority. One of the social conservative candidates would then be eliminated and his or her support redistributed; much of that support is likely to go to the remaining social conservative candidate.

If that candidate is still in third place on the second ballot, and neither MacKay nor O’Toole has reached 50 per cent at that point, then that candidate would be eliminated — and their votes would decide whether MacKay or O’Toole wins.

Fundraising figures show the Conservative leadership race is far from over
Leslyn Lewis (left) is running third in fundraising for the Conservative leadership race but has not raised the most in any individual province. Ontario MP Derek Sloan (right) is fourth, but raised the most in Saskatchewan and Eastern Ontario. (Greg Bruce/CBC, Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

This dynamic might explain some of the behaviour we saw from the two front-runners last week.

During a conference call with the Ontario Conservative caucus, O’Toole was the only MP who sided with Sloan against a motion to require Sloan to apologize for questioning the loyalty of Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.

MacKay’s campaign, meanwhile, had to walk back an email blast to its supporters that cited a transgender rights bill using language that led some critics to accuse MacKay of engaging in “dog -whistle” politics.

So social conservative candidates could prove to be Conservative Party kingmakers — and not for the first time. Scheer, for example, was boosted by the elimination of Lemieux and Trost in 2017. And Doug Ford won the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership in 2018 thanks in large part to voters backing social conservative candidate Tanya Granic Allen.

MacKay leads fundraising in Ontario, Atlantic, O’Toole in West

Another key factor will be the geographic distribution of votes. The Conservatives weigh each riding equally, regardless of how many votes are cast. That means a riding in Quebec with a few dozen votes carries as much weight as a riding in Alberta, where there could be hundreds of ballots cast.

That makes the regional distribution of fundraising particularly revealing.

MacKay led fundraising in Manitoba, Ontario and all four provinces in Atlantic Canada. His advantage on the East Coast was crushing: $191,000 raised against just $17,000 for O’Toole, his closest competitor. That lead was particularly pronounced in MacKay’s home province of Nova Scotia, where he raised $167,000 to just $9,000 for O’Toole.

Fundraising figures show the Conservative leadership race is far from over
Percentage of all dollars raised by each candidate for the federal Conservative leadership in each region or province of Canada, to Mar. 31, 2020. (CBC News)

In Ontario, MacKay brought in $603,000, beating out his three Ontario-based rivals: O’Toole raised $445,000 in the province, Sloan raised $233,000 and Lewis collected $205,000.

Regionally, MacKay raised the most money in every part of Ontario (including Toronto and the wider GTA, O’Toole’s stomping ground) except Eastern Ontario, where Sloan narrowly edged out his rivals.

O’Toole was the fundraising leader in British Columbia — with $111,000 to $94,000 for Lewis and $74,000 for MacKay — and in Alberta, where he raised $159,000. Lewis finished second in Alberta with $93,000, followed closely by MacKay at $89,000.

Sloan raised the most money in Saskatchewan ($23,000 to $21,000 for Lewis), while Lewis raised the most money in the North.

Little money raised in vote-rich Quebec

But Quebec punched well below its weight in Conservative leadership fundraising. The province represented only two per cent of all dollars given to the four contestants, despite accounting for 23 per cent of the points up for grabs in the leadership vote.

O’Toole narrowly raised the most in Quebec at $21,000, followed by MacKay at $18,000, Sloan at $11,000 and Lewis at $7,000 — peanuts compared to what was raised in other provinces.

That could suggest the results in Quebec will be unpredictable. O’Toole raised the most in Montreal and Laval, while MacKay was on top in the eastern portion of the province and tied with Sloan in the rest of Quebec. That doesn’t offer us a lot of clues about how the votes in the province could swing — but as the 2017 leadership race showed, it doesn’t take a lot of votes to make a big difference.

Accounting for the weight each province will carry in the final vote, the race looks closer than the overall fundraising picture suggests. On a weighted score, MacKay’s share of the fundraising drops to 36 per cent, while O’Toole’s rises to 31 per cent. Sloan and Lewis remain kingmakers with about 17 per cent apiece.

Only days after the Conservative Party decided to resume its leadership contest (ballots will need to be cast by mail by August 21), it became clear there is little love between the MacKay and O’Toole camps — each implied the other side was lying about the fundraising results.

Both front-runners can claim, with some justification, that the numbers show why they can win. Neither candidate can claim that they show they will win. This race is a long way from over.

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