Erin O’Toole has been leader of the Conservative Party of Canada now for nearly 200 days — none of them easy.
His party has as much support in the polls now as it did before he won the leadership. That makes him the exception among his predecessors — all of whom had seen the party get a bump in the polls at this point in their tenures.
And that includes Andrew Scheer, the person O’Toole replaced last August.
Numerous media reports have pointed to growing unease within the Conservative caucus and among party members over O’Toole’s stewardship. While moderates wait for a plan that could take the party back to government, some social conservatives feel O’Toole has turned his back on the wing of the party he courted successfully during last year’s leadership race.
It’s probably not a coincidence that these internal grumbles are emerging while the party remains stagnant in the polls.
According to the CBC’s Canada Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data, the Conservatives have 29.7 per cent support nationwide, putting them a little more than five points behind the leading Liberals.
When O’Toole became leader on Aug. 24, the Poll Tracker had the Conservatives at 29.9 per cent — meaning the party has gained no ground whatsoever over the last 200 days.
The party has actually lost ground in the polls in Western Canada and Atlantic Canada and has made no headway in Ontario. Only in Quebec are the Conservatives in a somewhat better position than they were in August.
While not every leader gets a big and enduring honeymoon, parties usually can expect at least some improvement when they have a new face to present to Canadians.
That’s what happened last time. A comparison between the Conservative leader’s numbers today and Scheer’s numbers about 200 days after he took on the job in May 2017 is not a flattering one for O’Toole.
In early December 2017, the Conservatives under Scheer had 32 per cent support in the Poll Tracker, an increase of nearly four points over where the polls stood before Scheer took over. The Conservatives had made gains in every part of the country except Alberta and the Prairies.
Regionally, O’Toole’s Conservatives have more support than Scheer’s Conservatives did at this point in his leadership in only two places: the Prairies and Quebec. In every other part of the country, the Conservatives have less support today than they did in December 2017.
There’s a silver lining for the party: it’s trailing the Liberals by a smaller margin in national polling than it was 200 days into Scheer’s tenure as leader. But the Liberals have a bigger lead over the Conservatives today than they did in December 2017 in British Columbia and Ontario — two key electoral battlegrounds.
Only in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — where the Conservatives already hold 54 of 62 seats — do the Conservatives have a bigger lead over the Liberals now than they did under Scheer at this stage of his leadership.
This is a problem for O’Toole, because Scheer was unable to hold on to the leadership because of his poor election showings in Ontario and Quebec. With more seats and more votes, the Conservatives did better in the 2019 election than they had in 2015, when Stephen Harper’s government was defeated.
But the extra seats and votes were won largely in Western Canada. They could not save Scheer when what the party needed most was to win in Ontario.
O’Toole not leaving a strong first impression
Of course, O’Toole and Scheer took on the party leadership in different political climates. Scheer became the Conservative leader in the midst of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first term in office. Little might have been expected from an opposition leader who was not scheduled to face the electorate for another two years.
O’Toole, on the other hand, is leading a party that could head into an election at any moment because Trudeau is running a minority government. The Conservative leader also has to try to break through to Canadians during a global pandemic, when there might be little appetite for politics or partisanship.
Regardless of the circumstances, however, the initial indications are that O’Toole has not made a good first impression on Canadians. Polls suggest his own personal ratings are off to a worse start than Scheer’s were in 2017.
According to polling by Abacus Data, 20 per cent of Canadians surveyed say they have a positive impression of O’Toole. While that’s down just one point from when Abacus first polled this question after O’Toole’s leadership victory, the share that say they have a negative impression of him has increased 13 points to 32 per cent.
Scheer, on the other hand, increased his positive ratings by five points in Abacus’s polling to 25 per cent by early 2018, while his negative ratings increased by just two points. That means Scheer had a net improvement in his overall ratings of three points — while O’Toole’s have worsened by 14.
Past Conservative leaders have gotten a bump
While this is just one point of comparison, O’Toole’s inability to make gains in the polls for the Conservatives stands out if we look further back. All previous rookie leaders of the Conservative Party, or its predecessor parties, saw a polling bump of some kind after 200 days.
When Harper became the new leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002, he saw an increase in support for his party of about three points. Progressive Conservative leaders Joe Clark (in 1999), Jean Charest (in 1994) and Brian Mulroney (in 1983) also got bumps of about three points in the polls at roughly the 200-day mark.
Robert Stanfield in 1968 and George Drew in 1949 each gave the PCs a bump of about four points in the early days of their terms in office, while the PCs under Clark in 1976 (during his first stint as leader) and John Bracken in 1943 (the earliest leader for whom polling is available) surged by about eight points.
This makes O’Toole the first Conservative leader on record to not get a polling bump at this stage of their leadership — at least among those who didn’t see their first 200 days interrupted by events. Peter MacKay already had led the PCs to a merger with the Canadian Alliance before he reached his 200-day mark in the job, while Kim Campbell, Stockwell Day and John Diefenbaker already had led their parties into election campaigns by that point (only Diefenbaker won).
O’Toole is not necessarily worse off than all these leaders — his party is still only five points back of the Liberals. Other Conservative leaders may have enjoyed more of a polling honeymoon than O’Toole did, but many of them had far more ground to make up than O’Toole does. And those polling honeymoons didn’t help to make Charest, Stanfield, Drew, Bracken or Scheer the prime minister.
But if he wants to quiet some of the disgruntled voices in his own party, O’Toole might have to start showing them some reasons to believe he can avoid the fate of his unluckier predecessors.