Conservatives break fundraising records but struggle to break through with voters

·5 min read
The Conservatives raised $8.5 million over the first three months of 2021, their best fundraising start to a year on record. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press - image credit)
The Conservatives raised $8.5 million over the first three months of 2021, their best fundraising start to a year on record. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press - image credit)

The Conservatives broke new fundraising records in the first months of 2021, raising more money than any party ever has in a first quarter and outpacing the governing Liberals by their widest margin yet.

But the party's success on the fundraising front hasn't led yet to a boost in its political fortunes.

According to data published by Elections Canada, the Conservative Party of Canada raised $8.5 million between January and March 2021 — its best first quarter ever. And because the CPC has a long history of raising more money than any other party, its first quarter performance was the best by any federal political party on record.

The Liberals raised just $3.5 million in the first quarter, a little more than $4.9 million behind the Conservatives. That set a new record for the widest gap between the two parties.

The New Democrats finished further behind, with $1.6 million raised — their best first quarter since 2015 — while the Greens raised $677,000. The Bloc Québécois set a new first quarter record for itself with $373,000.

Clearly, the pandemic has not kept donors' wallets shut.

But polls suggest the Conservatives continue to trail the Liberals in national support and would capture less of the vote today than they did in the 2019 federal election.

Having money is better than not having money, of course, but a boost in fundraising from donors — particularly for the Conservatives — does not always mean an increase in support among the broader population.

There is a relationship between party support and fundraising. The Conservatives and Liberals routinely top both the polls and fundraising. The NDP, third in national support, is usually third in fundraising, while the Greens and Bloc raise a lot less money (and have a lot less support) than the three bigger parties.

But that relationship only goes so far.

Money can't buy you love

The Conservatives have raised more money than the Liberals in 60 of the last 65 quarters (and in every first quarter on record). In the five quarters in which the Liberals raised more money, their advantage was never greater than $1.2 million. By comparison, the Conservatives have raised at least that much more than the Liberals 47 times.

If we break down the polls by each party's average support in any given quarter, the Conservatives have had more support than the Liberals in just 33 of the last 65 quarters. If money could buy the Conservatives love, they would have led in the polls more often.

For the Conservatives, there is a much weaker correlation between funds raised and popular support than there is for the Liberals or the NDP. When the Liberals or New Democrats have more support in the polls, they tend to raise more money. When they have less support, they tend to struggle with fundraising.

Not so for the Conservatives. Whether they're up or down in the polls has less of an impact on their ability to raise money.

Though fundraising has hit a new high for the first quarter of 2021, Conservative support in the polls remains stuck at around 30 per cent nationwide.
Though fundraising has hit a new high for the first quarter of 2021, Conservative support in the polls remains stuck at around 30 per cent nationwide.(Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

It's worth remembering that donors represent only a small fraction of the population. In the first three months of 2021, the Conservatives received just over 45,000 contributions. But the Conservatives earned 6.2 million votes in the last election, meaning those 45,000 contributors (some of whom probably donated multiple times) amount to just 0.7 per cent of the number of Canadians who voted for the Conservative Party in 2019.

But does raising money help win elections, regardless of what the polls say?

In addition to 2021 (which could still be an election year), the Conservatives raised at least $4 million more than the Liberals in the first quarters of the election years of 2008, 2011 and 2019. While they did win in 2008 and 2011, the fundraising advantage the Conservatives enjoyed in early 2019 did not help them win that October.

By comparison, the $3.5 million raised by the Liberals is only a little less than the $3.9 million they raised in the first quarters of 2015 and 2019 — years that ended well for them at the ballot box.

Desire for change lower than in 2019, even among Conservatives

Nevertheless, the fundraising numbers the Conservatives are putting up so far this year are big and impressive. At the very least, it means the party's election war chest will be full and its members and dedicated donors are chomping at the bit to boot Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from office.

But it doesn't seem like that feeling is widespread among voters — who may not been as keen for a change as they were in 2019.

According to a recent poll by Abacus Data, only 39 per cent of Canadians think it is "definitely time for a change of government." That's unchanged since the beginning of March but down 13 percentage points since the end of the 2019 federal election campaign — an election the Liberals still managed to win.

Two-thirds still want to see change, but the share of those who say it's not a priority for them is up 10 points since 2019.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals have out-fundraised the Conservatives in only four of the 32 quarters since he became Liberal leader in early 2013.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals have out-fundraised the Conservatives in only four of the 32 quarters since he became Liberal leader in early 2013.(Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

Perhaps most concerning for the Conservatives is the fact that, despite strong fundraising numbers, their own supporters don't seem to be as hungry for change as they were less than two years ago.

Abacus finds that 74 per cent of Conservative voters definitely want change, down 16 points from the end of the last campaign. The vast majority of Conservative supporters certainly do want change — only three per cent say they don't — but that desire doesn't seem to be as important to them as it was in October 2019.

Donors still only get one vote apiece, no matter how much money they donate or how enthusiastically they cast their ballots. To avoid another well-funded defeat, the Conservatives will have to use the money they have in the bank to convince more Canadians that it's time for a change — and that their party is the one that deserves their vote as well as their dollars.