MacDougall: Charest has five months to catch Poilievre. Good luck

The once-formidable politician’s biggest activity should be selling party memberships like hotcakes and hoping he can make up the big gap between his support and that of the Conservative leadership front-runner.

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Former Quebec premier Jean Charest might share his initials with the world’s most famous carpenter but he’s going to need to construct bigger miracles than turning water into wine if he hopes to overtake Pierre Poilievre in the Conservative leadership race.

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In case you hadn’t noticed, Poilievre has been pulling enormous crowds as he tours the country in support of his bid. There were hundreds in Ottawa, the GTA and Winnipeg, more than 1,000 in Windsor, and the same again in Lindsay (a community of only 20,000). On a Sunday. To a Conservative membership fed up with losing, Poilievre is something akin to a religion.

Poilievre’s numbers would be something during a general election, with the entire national heft of the Conservative Party of Canada swinging into action. That he’s drawing such crowds on his own during the mid-mandate doldrums, with much of the world’s attention focused on Ukraine, is even more impressive. Charest might be “built to win” as per his slogan, but the question now is “win what”?

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While Charest is (was?) a formidable politician, he needs to convince Conservatives he’s not yesterday’s man, campaigning with yesterday’s methods. Early indications are the country has moved on. To describe Charest’s launch video as low energy would be to gift Joe Biden the verve of a trapeze artist. Sure, Charest is doing the requisite videos in the airport arrival halls and calling out the right religious greetings, but he’s doing it with the look of a lonely man who can’t believe he has to pump out all of this content himself. Well, it ain’t the 1990s anymore, mon gars; solo “Coffee with Jean” videos with a few thousand hits aren’t going to cut it. You have to convey a sense of momentum, not one-man-bandism.

A fresh round of polling for Abacus Data bears the enthusiasm gap out. Of the current Conservative membership, 46 per cent plump for Poilievre, while 24 go for Charest. Fair enough, you might say; Charest’s last spell in former life was as a Quebec Liberal and not everyone has had enough time to digest his move to big-C conservatism. More importantly, Charest offers the promise of new audiences.

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What, then, do you say about Charest’s deficit with voters who are deemed to be “accessible” to the Conservatives (which currently goes 35-to-27 in favour of Poilievre)? Isn’t this meant to be the main Charest proposition: I’m the veteran hand who not only won’t frighten the horses, but attract more too? And while it’s fair to say the horses are not (yet) frightened, they appear to prefer Pierre.

Indeed, the only place Charest currently outperforms Poilievre is with the Canadian general population, where he holds a six-point advantage (32-to-26) over the former Harper cabinet minister. The problem for Charest is that, to get there, he first has to climb the mountain of the current Conservative membership. And here, the run of show gives Charest the tougher task to accomplish and in a shorter time frame. He’s got to win over the Conservative membership, whether existing or new during the leadership period, while overtaking an entrenched incumbent (of sorts), over a short spring and summer period. Poilievre, meanwhile, has only to maintain his advantage over Charest and will then have the luxury of a few years to overtake Trudeau, thanks to the timelines afforded by the new NDP-Liberal deal.

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Whatever policy Charest comes up with, it’s going to have to work hard — and quickly — to compete with Poilievre’s incessant chatter about #JustinFlation and government intrusion into the private sector. There might well be a case to be made that Canada’s carbon-pricing system will be so entrenched by the time of the next election there is no point promising to axe it, but the best time to make it probably isn’t this summer when ordinary consumers will be stroking out at the pump.

A better use of time for Charest would be to sell party memberships like hotcakes, and try to expand the leadership voter pool by a large enough margin to overcome Poilievre’s current advantage. This will surely be the approach of Patrick Brown, the one-time Conservative MP and current Mayor of Brampton, who is currently third in most polling. Indeed, Brown has long made a virtue of his appeal in some of the country’s third-language communities, where membership sales have historically been a growth industry (with an emphasis on industry). Could Charest out-brown Brown to spike Poilievre?

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It’s unlikely. For one thing, the membership sales cut-off is coming up quickly, in early June, leaving little time to sell. For another, Charest and Brown are also trying to charm a membership that will feel it was fooled by “true blue”-to-centrist Erin O’Toole the last time out and won’t want to be fooled again. These members are in the mood for something rock-ribbed and unapologetic. To place it in the era Charest will understand: in the current race, Poilievre is Stephen Harper and he is Peter MacKay.

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based communications consultant and ex-director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper.

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