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Peter MacKay the favourite to replace Harper, polls show

Justice Minister Peter MacKay carries his son Kian as they arrive at Fairview Junior High School in Halifax on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Recent polls suggest that Justice Minister Peter MacKay is the frontrunner to replace Prime Minister Stephen Harper as Conservative leader. If recent history is any indication, that is not a strong indication that he ever will.

Two polls conducted in mid-January by Abacus Data and Forum Research both indicated that Mr. MacKay was the preferred candidate among Canadians and Conservative supporters to take Mr. Harper's spot should the Prime Minister ever resign. The Abacus poll pegged him as the choice of 24 per cent of Canadians who voted for the Conservatives in 2011, putting him ahead of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall (13 per cent), Employment minister Jason Kenney (10 per cent), former cabinet minister Jim Prentice (7 per cent) and Industry Minister James Moore (2 per cent). Of note, however, is that 44 per cent of those polled selected "none of the above."

(For more analysis and numbers, check out our political polls page.)

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The survey by Forum Research only asked whether Canadians and Conservative voters approved or disapproved of some of the contenders. Again Mr. MacKay, the last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, topped the list with 26 per cent approval nationwide and 53 per cent approval among Tories. At 36 per cent, he had the lowest "don't know" level of any of the listed contenders.

Among Conservatives, Mr. MacKay's approval rating was higher than Mr. Kenney's (38 per cent), Mr. Wall's (26 per cent), Mr. Prentice's (23 per cent), and Mr. Moore's (16 per cent), as well as the other listed contenders: Foreign Minister John Baird (45 per cent), Treasury Board President Tony Clement (32 per cent) and Minister of State Maxime Bernier (16 per cent). Only Mr. Bernier had a disapproval rating among Conservatives that was higher than his approval rating.

Abacus conducted its survey with an online panel from Jan. 14 to 18, interviewing 633 Conservative voters. Online panels don't have a probabilistic margin of error. Forum conducted its poll via interactive voice response from Jan. 16 to 17, surveying 1,779 Canadians and 487 Conservative voters. Forum claims a margin of error of plus or minus 2 per cent for their entire sample.

Perennial favourite

In fact, this is not the first time that Mr. MacKay has been registered as the favourite to replace Stephen Harper. Mr. MacKay led a poll conducted by SES Research (now Nanos Research) in November 2005 listing potential replacements for the Conservative leader (he beat out former Ontario premier Mike Harris in the survey).

It would seem, then, that Peter MacKay would be the frontrunner if a Conservative leadership race is called, as he seemingly has the most support among Conservatives and would be best able to bring non-Conservatives into the Tory fold. But leading in a hypothetical leadership race has not always been a very good omen in the past, particularly in a crowded field.

...but do the polls matter?

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Polls conducted concerning who might replace Paul Martin as Liberal leader are a particularly good example. The November 2005 survey by SES Research pegged former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna as the favourite among Liberal supporters for the job at 28 per cent, putting him well ahead of former deputy prime minister John Manley (13 per cent). Author Michael Ignatieff placed well behind with just 4 per cent support. Mr. Martin's actual replacement, former environment minister Stéphane Dion, was not even listed.

A poll conducted by Ipsos Reid in January 2006, just before the federal election occurred, asked who should replace Mr. Martin if he lost. Mr. McKenna was again the favourite, followed closely by Brian Tobin and with Mr. Ignatieff low on the list. Again, Mr. Dion was not listed.

A February 2006 poll conducted by SES Research had a more clear picture of who would be likely to run, and suggested that Ken Dryden was the favourite to replace Mr. Martin among all Canadians. Bob Rae and Mr. Ignatieff were not far behind. But again Mr. Dion was left off the list.

In 2008, there was little time between Mr. Dion's resignation as Liberal leader and his replacement by Mr. Ignatieff, but in the brief interim Ipsos Reid found that new MP Justin Trudeau was Canadians' favourite for the job, narrowly edging out Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. McKenna. Among Liberals, however, Mr. Trudeau placed third.

Fewer contenders, better polls

When there are fewer quality contenders in a hypothetical leadership race, the polls have been more prescient. Polls conducted by Ipsos Reid in 2001 and 2002 showed that Paul Martin had the highest ratings among those likely to run for Jean Chrétien's job, beating out contenders like John Manley or Allan Rock. And a poll conducted in June 2012 by the firm showed Mr. Trudeau as having markedly better numbers than Mr. Rae among potential candidates to take over the party.

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Polls gauging a future, hypothetical leadership race do contain useful information. But they are far from a crystal ball. Many of the names listed in these polls never ran for the leadership of their respective parties, which will undoubtedly be the case with the two surveys by Forum and Abacus. However, they do show that if Mr. MacKay ever did run in a future leadership race, he would be a serious contender. They do not show that he would win it. Indeed, considering the outcome of the 2006 Liberal leadership race, the next leader of the Conservative Party may not yet be on anyone's radar. Fitting, perhaps, since the next leadership race could very well be held many years from now.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com. He is the author of the forthcoming e-book Tapping the Pulse, about political polling in 2013.

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