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LILLEY: CPC leadership race still undecided after membership numbers released

LILLEY: CPC leadership race still undecided after membership numbers released

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LILLEY: CPC leadership race still undecided after membership numbers released

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The numbers are staggering: 675,000 Canadians now have membership in the Conservative Party of Canada.

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Leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre has claimed to have sold 311,958 memberships.

Despite all this, Poilievre isn’t guaranteed to win.

The Conservative Party has a complex voting system that gives each riding 100 points, or one point for each voting member if the riding has fewer than 100 members. To win, a candidate needs to hit the magic number of 16,901 points once the ballots are cast in each riding across the country.

Poilievre’s campaign has impressively signed up 46% of the party’s total membership, if we take his numbers at face value. Just for the record, I’ll take all the campaign claims of sales at face value until I see evidence that they aren’t telling the truth.

That said, 46% of the total party membership may not be enough to win.

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Months ago, before the membership sales numbers were known — before Poilievre’s massive rallies were in the news — a veteran of CPC leadership races said that unless he gets 45% or more of the vote on the first ballot, he won’t win.

The structure of the leadership race, a ranked ballot system, makes it more difficult for the front-runner to pick up support from those eliminated early in the race. We already know that about 95,000 of the 269,000 eligible voters in the 2020 Conservative leadership race did not vote.

If 35% of Poilievre’s supporters don’t vote, that would make it difficult for him to win, despite the obvious advantage of having sold the most memberships. It’s why in conversations with campaign team members for the three front-runners – Poilievre, Jean Charest and Patrick Brown – that none of them were declaring victory.

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The Charest and Brown campaigns claimed that they have a valid path to victory due to the structure of the points system. Poilievre’s campaign has been going shock and awe on his membership sales, the size of his rallies and his social media presence.

Yet, a figure put forward that was not disputed by any of these camps appears to show that two-thirds of the 675,000 memberships in the party are held in less than 100 ridings concentrated in Western Canada and rural Ontario. I’m also told that 20 ridings combined account for more than 100,000 memberships.

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If true — and just as no one will deny it, no one will officially confirm these figures — this isn’t a good situation for the Poilievre campaign. It would paint a portrait of a very concentrated and inefficient vote.

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“Looks real,” said one party insider familiar with the numbers and not affiliated with any campaign.

The three biggest ridings by membership are in Alberta, the two largest ridings by membership in Ontario are in Carleton — the riding held by Poilievre — and Brampton East, in the heart of Brown’s power base. Ontario alone has some 293,000 members, of which Poilievre’s campaign claims to have sold 118,000 or 40% of the total.

To win in Ontario and in Quebec, which means to win the leadership, Poilievre needs to have all the people he sold memberships to actually mail in their ballots, and he needs to take some existing party membership. Of the 33,800 points available across the country, 19,900 are in Ontario and Quebec while the Atlantic provinces with 3,200 points count almost as much as Alberta’s 3,400 points.

Bottom line, despite the shock and awe of Poilievre’s campaign numbers, this race isn’t over and both Charest and Brown have paths to victory. While those paths to victory may be narrow, they do exist much to the chagrin of Poilievre and his supporters.

Just as with general election campaigns, this race may come down to who is best able to get their vote out when it counts.

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