Because of new advertising and fundraising laws in Ontario, restrictions on how much you can spend are going to kick in next month, six months before the June 2022 election.
What that means, in effect, is that the parties at Queen’s Park have only a few relatively unregulated weeks left to convince you of their brilliance and of the evil ways of their opponents.
The governing Progressive Conservatives jumped out first, extolling Premier Doug Ford’s virtues and outlining why neither of the other major alternatives should be given a sniff of power anytime soon.
But last Friday, the New Democrats followed up quickly with several television, digital, and radio ads designed to plant the party’s flag on a handful of key issues, point out the damage they believe the other major parties would do if they got back in, and feature what they believe is their best asset — their leader, Andrea Horwath, who routinely tops the polls as Ontario’s most popular party leader.
During a virtual news conference unveiling the new ads, I asked Horwath’s chief of staff, Michael Balagus, whether popularity is overrated in politics these days. After all, Ford won the last election even though he wasn’t particularly popular. And Justin Trudeau won the last federal election even though his popularity has consistently declined over the three elections he’s won.
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“Personal appeal is not overrated,” Balagus insisted, while acknowledging the NDP has had a history of very popular leaders (Jack Layton, Jagmeet Singh, Ed Broadbent, and Horwath) who top popularity polls but haven’t won elections. “But people do connect with a popular leader,” he said.
But, Balagus noted, sometimes popularity can’t compete with strategic voting, the bane of the NDP’s existence during most election campaigns. Balagus said things can be going swimmingly for New Democrats until Liberals tell voters, “You have to vote for us, or the terrible Conservatives will win.” Unfortunately for the NDP, that frequently seems to work.
But the NDP is hoping for a breakthrough in 2022, based on Horwath’s being “a pillar,” Balagus said, adding, “The people want hope, and we have a leader who instills confidence.”
The NDP ads attacking Ford are pretty standard fare. They accuse the premier of sticking up for his friends and fellow insiders at the expense of everyday Ontarians. It’s the ad attacking Liberal leader Steven Del Duca that’s more intriguing. The ad refers to Del Duca as former premier Kathleen Wynne’s right-hand man — an obvious effort to link Del Duca to a majority government that was reduced to seven seats in the 2018 election.
Despite Balagus’s claim that “accuracy is critical” and that “the worst thing you can do is run untrue ads,” the ad attacking Del Duca isn’t accurate. To suggest the current Liberal leader was Wynne’s right-hand man is to quite dramatically overstate the relationship the two Liberals had. Not that they were hostile to each another, but Del Duca and Wynne were never seen as particularly close confidants, either in Dalton McGuinty’s caucus or in Wynne’s cabinet thereafter, even if Wynne did give Del Duca two fairly senior cabinet posts in economic development and transportation.
Clearly, none of that matters in the NDP ad, where the mission is to link Del Duca and Wynne in voters’ minds.
“No one knows Steven Del Duca is the Liberal leader,” Balagus said. “That’s actually helping the Ontario Liberal party. So we’re spending money because we want people to know who the Ontario Liberal leader is.”
The NDP hopes that, by connecting Del Duca to Wynne, “the people will have a negative response,” Balagus explained.
“When you remind voters of the record of the Kathleen Wynne government, it’s not good. We need to remind people of the Liberal record of what they did and didn’t do.” The idea is to try to cement the notion in voters’ minds that, if people don’t like Ford, it’s the NDP that ought to be their first alternative choice.
This may be the most important lead-up to a provincial election ever for the Ontario NDP. With the exception of the 1990 election, when the party won its only opportunity to govern, the caucus has never been larger (40 MPPs); the Liberals have never been further behind (seven MPPs); and the party’s leader, running in her fourth general election, has never been better known or (the party would argue) better positioned to become premier.
Not only that, but the NDP has been remarkably successful in its fundraising efforts of late, taking in more than $2 million this year (the average donation is less than $30). That’s more than three times what the Liberals have fetched. The Progressive Conservatives, able to charge $1,500 a pop at more expensive fundraisers featuring cabinet ministers or the premier, are well ahead of everyone at $5 million raised. But the NDP’s donations come from nearly 70,000 donors, whereas the Tories relied on just 8,500 donors for their haul.
But if, as the well-worn expression goes, a week is a lifetime in politics, we still have nearly 34 lifetimes before next June’s election. The battle for the heart and soul of Ontarians is about to get intense.
“It’s a very exciting time and period,” Balagus said.