Maxime Bernier has a base. Is it big enough to protect him?

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer hasn't said whether he'll boot Bernier from caucus. Can he afford to?

Maxime Bernier came within a few thousand votes of Andrew Scheer in the 2017 Conservative leadership race. But does he still represent a significant portion of the party? (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Is Maxime Bernier too big to boot?

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has tried to distance himself from Bernier's controversial tweets about diversity and multiculturalism but will not say whether he is taking any steps to remove the Quebec MP from his party's caucus.

After stripping Bernier of his critic's portfolio in June, there is little more that Scheer can do to punish Bernier — apart from moving to drop him from caucus altogether.

If Bernier represents a significant segment of the Conservative constituency, however, ejecting him might be a risky move for Scheer to make — one that could alienate some of the party's most engaged supporters.

But Bernier's Twitter bark might be more impressive than his bite in the real world. A number of metrics suggest Bernier's base might not be as formidable as it seems.

The runner-up in the party's 2017 leadership race certainly knows how to steal headlines away from his boss. According to Google Trends, in the two months prior to Bernier losing his critic's portfolio, Scheer was beating Bernier in search interest by a margin of nearly five-to-one.

Since then, however, the margin dropped to only two-to-one — and since Bernier's initial social media posts on multiculturalism on Aug. 13, twice as much search engine interest in Canada has been directed at him than at Scheer.

Bernier has said that he wants to continue defending his conservative principles and will use the money he raises from his own supporters to spread his message and meet with Conservative Party members who share or are interested in his point of view.

But the people Bernier is cultivating — his 'Mad Max Club', as he calls it — aren't enough to make him a juggernaut within the party.

Bernier ranks fourth among Conservatives on social media

The Quebec MP has about 45,000 followers on Twitter, which ranks him fourth in the Conservative caucus behind Scheer, Ontario MP Tony Clement and Alberta MP Michelle Rempel. While he has about six times as many Twitter followers as the average Conservative caucus member, he is still well behind Scheer's 88,000 followers.

On Facebook, Bernier's page ranks fifth among caucus members in the number of likes — behind Scheer, Rempel, Ontario MP Lisa Raitt and Manitoba MP Candice Bergen. He trails Scheer by an even wider margin on this platform, at 57,000 likes to 199,000 for Scheer.

That Bernier's total Twitter and Facebook following ranks him fourth overall in the Conservative caucus is not insignificant — he ranks well ahead of some frontbench MPs and other former leadership contenders — but it hardly makes him invulnerable.

And his following pales in comparison to that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has four million Twitter followers and six million Facebook likes.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May also have wider social media audiences than Bernier.

Does Bernier's fundraising prowess help the party?

But Bernier's ability to raise money cannot be disputed. Earlier this month, he announced that he had finished paying off his debts from his leadership bid — and will continue to raise money.

He took in about $218,000 in the first six months of 2018, of which $11,000 went to the Conservatives as the party's share of his leadership donations. But apart from that tiny take (the Conservatives have raised more than $12 million so far this year), it isn't clear that Bernier is actually giving them a significant boost in fundraising.

That's particularly the case in Bernier's home province, where the party has had some trouble raising money. Filings with Elections Canada indicate that about five per cent of the money raised from donors giving at least $200 to the Conservative Party in 2018 came from Quebec. Extrapolating that to the total Conservative fundraising haul for the year so far suggests that about $575,000 has been raised in the province.

Bernier himself took in just $50,000 from Quebec and his Beauce riding association raised just $16,000 in 2017. The Beauce represents just a tiny share of the party's overall contributions. Despite Bernier's ability to fill his own coffers, he doesn't seem to be a particularly profitable MP for the party.

In other words, cutting him loose may not cost the Conservatives very much money.

Voters to win, voters to lose

It might not cost them much in votes, either. After Bernier lost the Conservative leadership, the Libertarian Party made overtures on social media for Bernier to lead their party last summer. A poll conducted at the time by Abacus Data, however, found that just two per cent of Canadians would vote for a Bernier-led Libertarian Party.

This hypothetical party did no better in Quebec than in the rest of the country — again, a sign that Bernier might not be a big part of the Conservatives' hopes in the province.

But there are voters that could be lost to the Conservatives if they don't make a clean break with Bernier — particularly among those new Canadians the party worked so hard to woo under Jason Kenney during his stint as the immigration minister. These voters are concentrated in swing ridings in suburban areas around Toronto and Vancouver — the kind of ridings that could decide the next election.

Of course, elections are won with the help of money and volunteers — and sending a message that the Conservatives don't  want the kind of people who agree with Bernier could sap their pool of donors and door-knockers.

But Bernier is not untouchable and the Conservatives can survive without him. As he mulls what to do with Bernier, Scheer might be asking himself whether the Conservatives can survive with him.