When Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives took control of the province in 2018, much of the credit for their victory went to the unpopular leader of the former Liberal government.
“The PC party didn’t win because of Doug Ford. The PC party won despite Doug Ford. They won because of [former Ontario premier] Kathleen Wynne,” said Greg Lyle, a seasoned pollster and president of Innovative Research Group.
Now, with current polls showing the Conservatives leading as Ontarians prepare to vote on June 2, Lyle said “the size of the victory we’re seeing right now, which may not last, is due to him.” .
Indeed, unlike his first two years in power, where he was a definite handicap, explains David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data.
“Doug Ford has gone from being Ontario’s least popular premier pre-pandemic to being pretty much in the middle, now, according to our polls, he’s the most popular [provincial] leader in the province,” said Coletto.
“Today there is no doubt that he is an asset that a significant number of people who do not normally vote Conservative – if these trends continue – will likely vote Conservative because Doug Ford is the leader. of the party, and not in spite of it being”, Coletto mentioned.
Coming out of the pandemic
That’s not to say Ford is adored across the province or that he doesn’t have a significant following of detractors. There are still large swaths of Ontario voters unsupportive of the PC leader – many of whom may still be angered by his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet there are also those who praise it, analysts say, and, more importantly for Ford, have since moved on from the pandemic to other issues.
With most Ontarians vaccinated and cases declining – and perhaps many have resigned themselves to living with COVID-19 – “people have short memories. We’ve kind of collectively outgrown the pandemic,” Coletto said.
“And so even though there were times when he made decisions or did things that really upset a lot of people, at the end of the day, I think people, even in our polls, are saying that he handled the pandemic well. It wasn’t for enough people, a disqualification.”
Instead, the electorate now sees “a world where the cost of living, inflation and interest rates really create, I think, a significant amount of anxiety for people,” Coletto said.
“Doug Ford and PCs – when we asked people who you think are the best at these things – they’re way ahead.”
As the four main political party leaders prepare to square off in their final debate on Monday night, CBC’s own Poll Tracker puts the PCs on track to form another majority government. But the situation in which Ford and his party find themselves is a far cry from what it was a little over a year ago.
Initially, Ford, like many other executives, saw those popularity numbers skyrocket in the early months of the pandemic. But ultimately the Tories were criticized for imposing too many restrictions by some, too few by others, and accused of having no plan.
In April last year, during the third wave of the pandemic, Ford introduced a series of unpopular policy initiatives which included new police powers and the closure of playgrounds. Following a public outcry, these policies were reversed, but they helped fuel the narrative of aimless government.
The impact was immediate. by Lyle Innovative Research Group found that satisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic slipped five points before and after the new restrictions were announced and Ford’s personal numbers fell.
Indeed, Lyle himself wrote an article at the time under the title: Is this the beginning of the end for Doug Ford?
“Doug Ford went from a party drag to a party asset, and now he’s poised to be a drag again,” he wrote.
“Almost everyone likely to vote in the next election is watching Doug Ford now, and most of them don’t like what they see.”
However, Ford was able to bounce back, in part by issuing a public apology for some of the actions, Lyle said.
As its numbers slowly rose, they hit another snag in January when the government appeared to struggle to strike the right balance on lockdown measures. Many parents have been frustrated by school closures, while Ontarians have decried shortages of rapid COVID-19 tests.
Again, however, Ford was able to pivot and rebound, with polls showing, according to Lyle, that many Ontarians felt the government’s changes to public health restrictions simply reflected the evolving nature of the coronavirus.
“It’s important to understand that in terms of issues and events, the public views them as character tests, not political examinations,” he said. “It’s important not just to do well, but to mean well. And enough Ontarians believe Ford did his best for the right reasons that he’s now on the verge of re-election.”
Lyle thinks Ford got credit for not being stubborn or ideologically tied to one political path.
“A lot of politicians, having made a change, would then have felt they had to stick with that. While he went, OK, well, you didn’t like that either. Alright, we’ll change again,” Lyle said.
“A lot of people would say, well, that just proves he didn’t really know what he was doing and he’s teetering from position to position. Yeah, but a critical number of voters are saying, eh well, it shows that this guy is listening. he cares what I think.”
More moderate politician
Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at the University of Windsor and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, said Ford was also able to portray himself as a much more moderate politician than some would have imagined.
“They thought he was going to be a slash and cut Tory prime minister, and he was nothing like that,” she said. “This latest budget is the biggest we’ve ever had.
“And he actually showed that he knows how to cooperate with the federal liberal government,” Miljan said. “He has a much better temper than people would probably give him credit for.”
Kate Harrison, vice president of public affairs firm Summa Strategies, said Ford was also enjoying little opposition. She said people have now had a chance to take a good look at NDP Leader Andrea Horwath to see if she’s the right alternative, “and the poll suggests they’re not biting this time.”
As for Liberal leader Steven Del Duca, “nobody at this point really thinks he’s going to have a surprise win from behind,” she said.
Abacus Data’s Coletto said his poll shows most Ontarians believe their lives — including the quality of education and health care — won’t change or improve if Ford is re-elected.
“And to me, that’s a big indicator that the opposition parties haven’t created fear in enough people’s minds of a re-elected Doug Ford,” he said.
Also, Ford’s success in retail policy shouldn’t be ignored, said Miljan of the University of Windsor. Small initiatives, like sending refund checks to Ontarians for renewing their license plate sticker, go a long way, she said.
“I think one of the risks that other politicians run, especially on the left, is that they denigrate that and … say that’s being mean-spirited. But that’s losing votes.”
Ford, too, appears to be able to convince voters that he is the best leader to create opportunities sought by a struggling middle class, Lyle said — and that when people are asked which leader is most likely to to make changes in their favor, Ford wins on this issue.
“That’s the added advantage he gives the Conservatives in this election campaign,” Lyle said. “I’ve been watching or doing politics since 1981, and I can’t name another leader who was prime minister for four years and was able to portray himself as the best for change.”