Three ways the Progressive Conservatives could still lose the election

ANALYSIS: Recent polling shows Doug Ford and the Tories coasting to a majority — but in politics, nothing is ever certain, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Mar 13, 2018
The recent PC leadership race was certainly good practice for Doug Ford, but it doesn’t compare to the marathon he’s signed up for. (Chris Young/CP)

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​Doug Ford is officially the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. If he leads it to a majority of seats at Queen’s Park on June 7, he’ll be the next premier.

And that’s what’s most likely to happen, according to all available evidence. It’s true that several polls give the Tories a smaller lead with Ford at the helm than they might’ve had with leadership runner-up Christine Elliott, but they still show that the one-term Toronto city councillor would handily beat the Liberals if the election were held today. (And given the unpopularity of the Liberals generally and of Kathleen Wynne particularly, there’s nothing to suggest the governing party will launch a comeback.)

But the election won’t be held today. Campaigns matter, and there’s one major piece of government business left before MPPs hit the trail: a Liberal budget likely to be loaded with popular promises that position the party further to the left than it already is. With plenty of dire warnings not to underestimate Ford’s appeal to the electorate flying around already (I got there right after he announced, thank you very much), it’s worth remembering that it’s also possible to lose in politics — most politicians do most of the time.

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Here are a few ways the Progressive Conservatives could still lose the election.

1. Ford could blow it

This is the most banal answer, but it’s important and so easy to overlook: politics is hard work, and not everyone is good at it. Even the pros can mess up badly and publicly.

Ford has run a disciplined campaign so far: for example, having said he wanted a more restrictive abortion policy last week, he then predictably pivoted, telling reporters this week that it’s “not at the top of my agenda.” It’s reassuring, in a way, to see Ford act like just another politician.

Maybe he’ll be able to maintain this level of discipline until election day — his late brother did, over the course of a much longer campaign — or maybe he won’t. But elections are incredibly stressful events; they are enormously draining, both physically and emotionally. The coming election will be Doug Ford’s first at the provincial level. The recent party leadership race was certainly good practice, but it doesn’t compare to the marathon Ford has now signed up for. And he could snap. He could start bellowing at hostile voters on camera (again), or he could make a bizarre statement about Jewish people in a televised debate (again).

He’ll be running against two veteran campaigners in Wynne and NDP leader Andrea Horwath, and unlike his fellow Tories, they won’t be pulling their punches. Ford has come a long way, but it’s entirely possible that his campaign could go off (or be blown off) the rails between now and election day.

2. Ford could unite his enemies and divide his allies

The Liberals were not exactly enthusiastic going into this election. They’re struggling with both fundraising and attracting headline candidates, even in places that should be easy for them to hold (they still don’t have a nominated candidate in Toronto Centre to replace Glen Murray, for example).

Ford could change all that. As a hard-right conservative promising to undo some of Kathleen Wynne’s signature achievements — notably the cap-and-trade system that’s the major environmental achievement of her mandate since 2014 — Ford is practically tailor-made to energize the Liberal base. A number of Liberals have already told me that they could have lived with an Elliott-led Tory party but won’t go down without the fight of their lives against Ford.

And as much as Ford’s appeal is unquestionably broad, potential opposition movements are everywhere, too. His record of blowing up transit plans in Toronto could be used against his party in such places as London, Waterloo, and Ottawa. Families of children with autism have turned out to be a surprisingly mobilized and effective political force in the last year; do we think they’ll forgive and forget Ford’s offensive remarks about their kids? Would you?

Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that every Tory who supported Elliott (the majority of the actual voting members, recall) will hold their noses and vote Ford. Some may look at another party; others may simply stay home. While the Tories currently have a strong lead in the polls, Ford may have already given up five points of that lead (if the latest Forum Poll is correct), and the Liberals have a history of gaining momentum during election campaigns. The Tories are tempting fate if they think that’s impossible this time around.

3. Ford could give the anti-Liberal vote other options

A cautionary reminder from the days of the Common Sense Revolution: in 1995 the Liberals, facing off against a deeply unpopular government (sound familiar?), squandered a massive lead in the polls, and, in the end, the PC party that had started 25 points behind them ended up in power.

If it can happen once, it can happen again. This time, it’s the Liberals that are politically toxic, and the party waiting in the wings is the NDP. It would be ironic indeed if Doug Ford (whose father served in Mike Harris’s first mandate) was what Ontario politics needed to put the NDP back in power after a generation in the wilderness, but that doesn’t mean it’s an entirely hallucinatory proposition. Progressive voters in Ontario are pretty evenly divided between the two centre-left parties, but they could stampede to one party or the other on election day as a means of stopping Ford at all costs. The 2011 federal election showed — through Michael Ignatieff’s disastrous defeat and Jack Layton’s ascent — that there’s no guarantee voters will flee to the Liberal brand just because someone says “there are only two choices” over and over.

None of these scenarios is guaranteed. Indeed, none of them is even plausible given the polling data we’ve got in front of us today. Right now, the smart bet would be on a Progressive Conservative government with a hefty majority at Queen’s Park. But it’s a long way yet to June 7, and the past six weeks have shown us how quickly things can change.

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