Why Ontario’s election will be a referendum on Doug Ford

Predicting the direction of an election before the campaign begins can be a bit of a gamble.

Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom was that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has dominated the lives of Ontarians for the past two years, would also dominate the 2022 election campaign in Ontario.

Then pollsters began to focus on affordability and the rising cost of living. While the government’s handling of the pandemic still looms large for many, these pocketbook issues now appear to be the top concern for the largest proportion of Ontario voters.

Yet voters don’t always vote on issues; their feelings towards the leaders often play a crucial role. If there’s one overriding theme that drives Ontario voters’ partisan preferences more strongly than anything else, it’s how they feel about Doug Ford.

The leader of the Progressive Conservative Party has become a larger than life political figure in this province. Ford is one of those politicians who elicits intense feelings of support or condemnation. There are few voters in Ontario who don’t have an opinion about him, and those opinions tend to be rather fiercely expressed.

This polarization, plus its ubiquity during the pandemic and the the way he ruled pre-COVID-19, all combine to make this election, in large part, a referendum on Ford and his tenure as prime minister on a rollercoaster ride.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford walks up to the Lieutenant Governor. Elizabeth Dowdeswell’s office at Queen’s Park in Toronto to dissolve the Legislative Assembly and officially launch the campaign ahead of the June 2 provincial election. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The Ontario NDP and Ontario Liberals also seem keen to frame the election this way, each trying to capitalize on anti-Ford sentiment.

From my conversations with PC Party strategists, their reaction to this could be summed up as, “Go for it.”

The PC campaign team believes that Ford’s persona meshes well with his campaign message – a pitch tinged with forward-looking optimism to get things done. He would be happy if the other parties tried to make this election about Ford.

While anti-Ford voters may not want to hear this, there are a significant number of people in this province who like it very much. PC strategists tell me that Ford is probing well among union members, working-class voters, 905 commuters and Northern Ontarians.

Numerous public polls show Ford as Ontarians’ preferred choice for premier, earning leadership qualities superior to those of the NDP’s Andrea Horwath or the Liberals’ Steven Del Duca.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath leaves the campaign bus after her nomination meeting and campaign launch in Hamilton, Ont., April 30. (Nick Iwanyshyn/The Canadian Press)

Scott Reid, a longtime federal Liberal adviser, says these particular poll results tell him opposition parties need to step up their attacks on Ford.

“If you don’t steal the ball that Doug Ford is, then you’re not going to win this campaign,” Reid said on the curse of politics Podcast tuesday.

The parties need a “clear, crisp and precise argument that says Doug Ford doesn’t deserve to be fired,” Reid said.

He thinks they can find ammunition against Ford through its handling of the pandemic, as the decision to close playgrounds in the face of the third wave.

“Use a few examples to say that this guy, when he got pressed with the puck deep in his end and he had to make the right pass, missed it,” Reid said. “This guy didn’t have the spirit, he didn’t have the instinct to make the right choice to defend the public interest. We couldn’t count on him then, we can’t count on him now to do in the face of the cost of the crisis experienced.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca greets guests at Frank’s Place in Vaughan, Ontario on April 30 after announcing plans to scrap the HST on prepared foods under $20. (Yader Guzman/The Canadian Press)

Alex Callahan, director of public affairs at Strategies 360, a government relations firm, believes the fundamental choice in this election will be framed around the leader of the PC.

“I think the question is, do people want change? Or do they want what they’re getting from Doug Ford?” said Callahan, a former Ontario NDP staffer, in an interview with CBC News.

Callahan said Ford governed with great pomp before the pandemic, and he thinks many voters were often upset about why Ford was in the headlines as prime minister.

“If it’s not for something that makes their life better, I think it’s generally frustrating for people,” Callahan said.

Karl Baldauf, vice president of the McMillan Vantage Policy Group and former chief of staff in the Ford government, said he was surprised the Liberals and NDP hadn’t made a better case for change.

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner addresses candidates at a campaign event in Kitchener, Ont., April 10. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Baldauf said conservatives would rather ask themselves how to lead the province down a path to prosperity. And he’s not convinced the PCs really want the election to be a referendum on Ford.

To win this particular referendum, Ford doesn’t need to get 50% plus one. In fact, all he really has to do is hang on to the voters who came with him in 2018.

In particular, his key target is the roughly 600,000 people who weren’t traditionally PC voters before the last election, but joined in 2018, taking the PC vote share to 40% from around 30% in each. four successive elections.

These are the people Ford really needs to convince him he’s done a good enough job as prime minister to give him another chance.

If the NDP and the Liberals want to make the election a referendum on Ford, they will have to present convincing arguments to persuade Ontarians to vote “no”.