Only days before Conservatives name their new leader, an informal survey of local party officials from across the country suggests former backers of erstwhile leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary aren't necessarily voting for front-runner Maxime Bernier.
The Globe and Mail spoke to dozens of Conservative riding-association presidents and long-time members in recent weeks to gauge how the grassroots is planning to vote in the lead-up to the May 27 leadership unveiling in Toronto.
Mr. O'Leary stunned supporters when he abruptly quit the race last month and backed Mr. Bernier, who now says the celebrity investor will play the role of "economic adviser" if he wins.
Although Mr. Bernier is still the perceived front-runner in the contest, some of Mr. O'Leary's supporters have scattered – meaning the Quebec MP's lead is less predictable heading into the convention.
Larry Gray, vice-president of the Kelowna-Lake Country association in British Columbia, initially backed Mr. O'Leary but did not want to vote for Mr. Bernier. He said he put Lisa Raitt as the first choice on his ballot, followed by Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole.
"If somebody drops out and says you should go with this person … I take their endorsement lightly," Mr. Gray said.
"Unfortunately, I think Maxime Bernier is going to win, and I think that's devastating for the Conservative movement."
Jeff Slater, a member of the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding north of Victoria, previously said Mr. O'Leary was his only choice for leader. Now, he doubts he'll even cast a ballot.
"There's no one worthwhile," Mr. Slater said. "I would never go to Bernier."
Mr. O'Leary and Mr. Bernier both raised more than $1-million in the first quarter of this year, with Mr. Bernier's fundraising totalling more than $2-million in the race. They both claim to have signed up the same number of new members – more than 35,000 each. More than 259,000 members are eligible to vote in the race, and the party says almost one-third of them have already cast their ballots by mail.
Mr. O'Leary's name still appears on the ballot, even though there are now only 13 official candidates. Conservative members have the option to rank up to 10 choices on the preferential ballot, and with ridings given equal weight across the country, party officials believe voting will go several rounds before a new leader is chosen.
According to The Globe's informal survey, Mr. Bernier enjoys broad support across the country, including in Alberta, where is he dubbed the "Albertan from Quebec."
But his libertarian-leaning positions – which include eliminating supply management and dramatically reducing the size of government – may scare off Conservative voters who are hoping the next leader can appeal to mainstream Canadians to beat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"My reservations about Maxime have mostly to do with the boldness, the sort of ideological tinge to some of his proposals," said Paul Bunner, president of the Edmonton-Strathcona riding association, who is leaning toward Michael Chong, as well as Mr. Scheer and Mr. O'Toole.
Others say there is still no clear path to victory for any of the candidates.
"Maxime Bernier is the front-runner, but it doesn't seem as if my riding, or other ridings, are being … swamped by memberships of one particular candidate," said Mark Johnson, president of the Scarborough-Agincourt Conservative Association in east Toronto, who is voting for Mr. O'Toole.
"It could be anyone's game."
The province of Quebec, which has 78 out of the country's 338 ridings, is a key battleground because all ridings have equal weight in the final tally, even where there are relatively few members. Mr. Bernier is by far the best-known candidate in his home province, which stands to provide him with an edge on voting day.
In the riding of Mirabel, north of Montreal, riding president Yvan Patry said he appreciates Mr. Bernier's forthrightness and ability to say what he wants to do in government. Mr. Bernier has lost support in his home province because of his plan to get rid of supply management, but Mr. Patry said lots of Conservative members support him on this front.
"There is Erin O'Toole, who is popular in the area, but Maxime Bernier is from Quebec, so that gives him a big advantage," Mr. Patry said.
Mr. Scheer's campaign has been active in Quebec, focusing its efforts on ridings with small numbers of members. A key pillar has been promising to protect supply management, a stand that has been popular in rural areas.
In a city such as Montreal, Mr. Scheer has also won over people such as Conservative electoral district president Nadia Lapointe with his smile and positive approach to politics. However, he is struggling to overcome his relatively low profile in the province.
"People know Mr. Bernier; they don't really know Mr. Scheer," said Ms. Lapointe, who has been calling members in the riding of Ahuntsic-Cartierville on behalf of the Scheer campaign.
In Kings-Hants, north of Halifax, Marie Yvonne Olson never took a liking to Mr. O'Leary, but she isn't a fan of Mr. Bernier, either. "I don't like him, period. He's pulled too many stunts," she said, pointing to the candidate's resignation in 2008 as minister of foreign affairs after he left confidential documents at a girlfriend's house and his more radical policy proposals.
Instead, Ms. Olson is ranking Mr. O'Toole as her first choice, pointing to his deep ties to Nova Scotia and pro-military positions. "He doesn't need a GPS to find the Atlantic provinces," said Ms. Olson, whose ballot also included votes for Ms. Raitt and Pierre Lemieux.
Other consistent choices for leader include Mr. O'Toole, Mr. Scheer and Ms. Raitt, who prove popular in Ontario and Eastern Canada, according to the riding presidents.
Adam Douglas, president of the Elgin-Middlesex-London riding in southwestern Ontario said his top three choices are Mr. O'Toole, Mr. Scheer and Mr. Bernier.
"I've heard a lot of support for … the more consensus candidates, such as O'Toole and Scheer," he said, adding that Mr. Chong also has supporters.
Tony Fogarassy, president of the Vancouver Granville Conservative association, said at this point he believes four candidates are in the mix: Mr. Bernier, Mr. O'Toole, Mr. Scheer and Kellie Leitch, who has proposed a plan to screen immigrants for "Canadian values."
He'll be supporting Mr. O'Toole, followed by former Conservative MP Andrew Saxton, who hails from Vancouver.
Mr. Fogarassy believes the so-called consensus candidates will prevail. "To me, that's the race. The race is O'Toole, Scheer."