With Conservatives across the country casting mail-in leadership ballots, and three weeks until results are announced, there is some consensus about the state of play – that Quebec MP Maxime Bernier leads the pack, that Saskatchewan's Andrew Scheer is probably second, that Ontario's Erin O'Toole likely has the best shot among the other 11 candidates of pulling off an upset.
But there is also recognition, among party insiders, that it's hard to know just what to expect. For a variety of reasons, this is among the most peculiar campaigns any of them have ever encountered.
The front-runner took his ball and went home
Opinions differ as to whether Kevin O'Leary, who sucked up much of the campaign's oxygen before quitting ten days ago, would have won.
But sources in other leadership camps, along with neutral party officials, agree that he signed up the most new party members, and probably would have gotten the most first-choice votes on the preferential ballot. And he casts a long shadow.
For one thing, he left behind angry campaign staff. Now mostly working for Mr. Bernier, behind whom the reality-TV entrepreneur threw his support, they dispute the common perception that Mr. O'Leary realized he wouldn't have enough second-choice support to win – suggesting instead that he simply lost interest. While he made decent effort for a couple of months after his campaign launch in January, one of his top former officials says, he seemed to think his work was done after the cutoff to sign up new members in late March. He cancelled planned appearances, when he needed to be working full-time to persuade other Conservatives to vote for him, before bailing altogether after his team called him on slacking off, the official said.
And then, more consequentially, there are the rank-and-file supporters Mr. O'Leary left behind, including the 35,000-plus members (out of a total voting pool of 259,010) his campaign directly recruited. Those who donated to his campaign, or at least shelled out $15 for a membership, are understandably furious. Among the campaign's biggest mysteries now is how many are following him to Mr. Bernier, splintering to other candidates, or just trashing their ballots in disgust.
The new front-runner is a lone wolf
Mr. Bernier has spent much of his career being viewed by caucus colleagues as an impractical ideologue. That apparently hasn't changed, even as his campaign has gained momentum with the grassroots: Only seven fellow MPs back him, versus 29 for Mr. O'Toole and 24 for Mr. Scheer.
There is recent precedent for a candidate with little caucus support being elected leader by a party's general membership: Patrick Brown pulled it off with Ontario Progressive Conservatives two years ago. But Mr. Bernier, a staunch libertarian proud of his "Mad Max" nickname, is unusually uninterested in consensus-building. Whereas most leadership campaigns pledge to build a platform in consultation with the party they would helm, he already has a controversial one – including an end to the equalization formula, supply management, any federal role in health care, any and all corporate subsidies or loans – that he says colleagues would be expected to immediately start selling whether they like it or not.
And unlike Mr. Brown, who faced only one opponent on the provincial leadership ballot, Mr. Bernier is extremely unlikely to win a majority of first-choice votes. As a result, there is the chance of an anybody-but-Max movement bailing out the party establishment – although, oddly, such a thing has yet to visibly emerge.
So many candidates, so little deal-making
Received wisdom held that the field would shrink by the end of 2016, when cash-strapped candidates could get out before sinking the full participation fee. Instead, all but one of the 14 in the race as of December (before Mr. O'Leary jumped in) opted to stick it out.
Once that happened, speculation turned to preferential-voting alliances among candidates – no-hopers trying to play kingmaker by encouraging supporters to back a particular contender second, and middle-of-the-pack candidates striking second-choice agreements so that one of them might be able to leapfrog candidates above them.
There were such discussions, but almost nothing materialized, save for Mr. O'Leary's sudden bailout. As a result, the Conservatives are left with more candidates than any such contest has seen before, and little clue what those candidates' supporters will do with their ballots beyond marking their first choice.
So many mystery voters, too
With only about 80,000 party members as of late last year, most Conservative officials and insiders predicted somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 by the time campaigns were finished recruiting. Instead it's wound up at nearly 260,000 – roughly the same as in the 2004 leadership that elected Stephen Harper, which is impressive since the party made an unusual effort this time to ensure new members paid their own fees.
It's not possible to verify exactly how many were signed up by each campaign. (Mr. O'Leary's is the only one acknowledged by others not to have inflated its numbers.) The same goes for third parties – including organizations supportive of social-conservative candidates Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost, and pro-supply management groups opposed to Mr. Bernier – that ran sign-up efforts.
But based on conversations with campaign organizers involved in voter tracking, the higher-than-expected membership rolls appear to have less to do with over-performing recruitment numbers than with a surprising number of people registering on their own.
For the party, it's good news that the race generated so much engagement. For the campaigns, it creates another layer of mystery usually absent from such contests.