Ford focus: Is the Liberals’ election strategy working in Ontario?

OPINION: Justin Trudeau is hoping Ontarians won’t forget about Doug Ford on election day — but the premier’s unpopularity may not be enough to steer voters away from the Tories
By Matt Gurney - Published on Oct 16, 2019
Doug Ford
A recent poll shows that Premier Doug Ford’s popularity has fallen to 26 per cent. (Chris Young/CP)

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Election day is now less than a week away, and a signature issue has yet to emerge in Ontario. In Quebec, the contentious Bill 21 has loomed large, as various party leaders have struggled to avoid either endorsing it or overtly criticizing it, lest they threaten their hopes for gains there. As ever, environmental issues have dominated in British Columbia, and Alberta and Saskatchewan remain energized over energy developments and export possibilities.

In Ontario, though, all the discussion and debate has basically boiled down to one guy. And he’s been largely invisible.

I’m referring to Premier Doug Ford, of course. Ford fell out of sight as the summer began, recessing the legislature until after the upcoming vote. This gave his own battered government an opportunity to reset and regroup after a punishing first year in office — even if there had not been a federal election on the horizon, a long pause would probably have been in the Tories’ self-interest. But there was a federal election in the offing, and it was reported that, with the Ford government’s popularity in free fall, the federal Conservatives had asked the deeply unpopular Ford to — to put it politely — go away and lie low for a while. (In fairness, such reports were denied, but I’m not sure anyone believed said denials.)

Regardless of the motivation, it’s true he hasn’t been out and about much of late, the odd public appearance or video notwithstanding. At time of writing, he’s due to give a press conference in a matter of hours. But in Kenora — about as far from the battleground 905 ridings as one can get without actually leaving the province. This event will mark one of the few times Ford has been seen in public; the recent successful negotiations between his government and the union representing thousands of school staff was handled almost entirely by the province’s minister of education. Nary a whisper was heard from or about the premier.

That hasn’t kept Ford’s name out of the election, to be sure. Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has invoked his name so many times — and not in a flattering way! — that some reporters have begun counting the references. The strategy here isn’t hard to fathom: Ford is unpopular in Ontario, and the Liberals must do well in Ontario, so they’re campaigning as if their opponent were Ford. More than one observer has quipped that if Trudeau keeps it up, Ford’s chances of being prime minister after October 21 will be bleak.

So the focus on Ford is a thing. You can’t miss it. But is it working?

There isn’t an easy answer to that question. Calculating a party’s public support is hard enough; determining the various overlapping factors that determine that level of support is much harder. It’s certainly reasonable to guess that the Liberals’ constant hammering of the premier will have kept the provincial government’s troubles top of mind, as intended. But there’s one sign — a meaningful one — that the focus on Ford hasn’t delivered quite the results the Liberals might have been hoping for: the federal Conservatives are much more popular in Ontario than the premier is.

Just a few weeks ago, a DARTMaru BluePoll found that, even during his prolonged public absence, Ford’s popularity had continued to fall — down to a measly 26 per cent. The federal Tories, though, are doing quite a bit better than that in this province. The 338Canada.com aggregator has the Conservatives at around 33 per cent, four points behind the Liberals, whose provincewide numbers are likely slightly inflated by their strength in Toronto. The CBC Canada Poll Tracker has the Tories a point lower than that, but also has the leading Liberals a point lower than Canada338, making it a wash — still a difference of four points, or within the overall margin of error.

Again, this isn’t to say that the focus on Ford hasn’t had some of the impact the Liberals were seeking. The Tories no doubt wish they were doing better in Ontario, and the Liberals are no doubt thanking their lucky stars that they aren’t. But there remains a considerable delta between Ford’s lows and Scheer’s (projected) high. In this tight race, the delta may prove enormously meaningful.

I should note that there are other issues that have certainly had an Ontario flavour. As I wrote this, news broke that the Liberals were prepared to support the proposed Ontario Line subway project in Toronto. The gun-control debate has certainly been influenced by events in the city, as has the (surprisingly limited) discussion of affordable-housing issues. But it’s mostly been all Ford, all the time. We’re now just days away from seeing how well that will work for the incumbents.

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