Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research.
The current conversation about Canadian values and immigration triggered by Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch could be seen as a fight for the heart of the Conservative tribe in Canada. The debate represents both an opportunity for the Tories to remake themselves and a dangerous risk that the party may ultimately be cast into the political wilderness.
There are a number of cautionary observations one should take to heart.
First, whether you loved or did not love Stephen Harper, the core of his winning franchise as the leader of the Conservatives was to advance the Tories as the best managers of tax dollars and as the party that believed in less government.
The base was predicated on the common values held by former Reformers and former Progressive Conservatives – that they could agree on the importance of fiscal prudence of the state and focus on the economy. That being the base, engaging on social issues and issues related to ethnicity was not a core political driver but an additional element to bring the Conservatives into winning and majority territory on election day.
The key takeaway was that with a base of voters committed to the economy, Mr. Harper and his team reached out to a diversity of ethnic and cultural groups, which helped him form his winning coalition. His most successful election in 2011 was where he activated both fiscal conservatives and new Canadians.
The caution for the Conservatives is that a leadership bid focused on issues of race, ethnicity and what makes for a Canadian misses the point of what Canadians usually associate with the Conservatives – controlling taxes, smaller government and working to create jobs. This is akin to McDonald's taking hamburgers off the menu and focusing on salads. Salads are not part of its core promise to customers. The risk for the Conservatives is that a leadership race not focused on the economy vacates the issues playing field and cedes a strategic advantage to the Liberals.
The second cautionary observation relates to the unravelling of the winning Conservative coalition. The Harper Tories sought to win elections without significant support from Quebec and wanted to reshape Canada as a two-party state with the Conservatives as one of the two parties. Mr. Harper was successful at winning elections without major support from Quebec. The twist is that the Liberals have become closer to realizing a two-party state, as they squeezed out the New Democrats last year to sweep up the progressive vote in Canada.
A contentious leadership race dividing Progressive Conservatives from Reform Conservatives over identity politics could unravel the coalition that kept the Conservatives in power for almost a decade. Before the party can have a hope of challenging the Liberals, the Conservatives must first be united.
One could argue that the unravelling of the Conservative winning alliance happened in the 2015 federal election. As soon as Mr. Harper lost the advantage on economic stewardship, his veering into identity politics with snitch lines for barbaric cultural practices snapped the Conservative advantage.
Some polls may suggest that today's Conservatives are okay with identity politics, but the reality is that Conservative support today only sits at one in four Canadians – a far cry from the Tory glory days under Mr. Harper. To say Conservatives are okay with identity politics today is to say that what is left of the Conservative coalition in the wake of defeat and setback is in truth okay with identity politics.
Perhaps the lesson is that if a party veers away from its strength, it risks voter abandonment and even potential division in the long run.