Why this election was never about Ford Nation

ANALYSIS: If the Progressive Conservatives prevail on Thursday, it’s going to be despite Doug Ford’s personality, not because of it, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 06, 2018
Ford Nation is, at most, a tiny minority of voters who would have marked a ballot for any Tory leader. (Chris Young/CP)



The polls are still showing a tight race between the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP in the last days of the campaign. But given the structure of Ontario politics, a tie or near-tie in the popular vote is likely to produce a Tory majority at Queen’s Park — and put Doug Ford in the premier’s office.

A curious thing has happened during the election campaign, though, and it punctures one of the myths upon which Doug Ford’s brief political career has been founded: that there’s a vast army of Ford supporters out there somewhere that he’s mobilized to remake the province in his image.

Ford Nation, it turns out, basically doesn’t exist. At most, it’s a tiny minority of voters who would have marked a ballot for any Tory leader in any event. And that tiny minority tends to bring out the kind of performance in the PC leader that most alarms the moderate voters the party needs to hang on to for election day.

This is pretty obvious across multiple polls: the vote is tight, but Ford is performing well with all the groups that have voted Tory in the past. Basically, the Tory vote is older and male-er, but the party is also doing better this campaign in the suburbs of Toronto and Ottawa. That’s no small thing, given Tory failures in prior elections, but there’s also no evidence that Doug Ford is driving any of this: he’s neck and neck with the NDP, and he’s totally failed to crack some of the areas that “Ford Nation” was supposed to open up for the Tories: working-class manufacturing cities like Windsor, London, and Thunder Bay could all be swept up by the NDP on Thursday.

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Ford is not going to lead the party anywhere close to the largest majority government in history — which is what he promised at the outset of the campaign. He might crack 40 per cent in the popular vote, but he’s unlikely to get the roughly 45 per cent that Mike Harris got in both 1995 and 1999 and that Stephen Harper nearly got federally in 2011. (The Ford family likes to say that Rob Ford’s endorsement of Harper in 2011 helped the Conservatives in Toronto; this is basically a fantasy.) Perhaps more humbling, he’s nearly certain do to more poorly than that Tory bogeyman, Dalton McGuinty — who scored over 46 per cent in 2003.

Ford’s populist appeal for some voters is not the story of this campaign. The determining factor here is far simpler: the PCs are profiting from the total collapse of the Liberal vote across the province. Because of that, they may be able to flip ridings in the 905 belt around Toronto and to elect several MPPs in the 416 itself. That’s very good for the Tories, but there’s no evidence that Ford is doing any better than any of his rivals for the PC leadership would have done, and there’s substantial evidence that he’s doing worse.

Most obviously, the PC campaign has pretty much been hiding their leader from the press for the past two weeks while it tries to focus attention on other senior members on the Tory slate — online advertising, for example, has put his former leadership rivals Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney front and centre.

Indeed, if we take Tory messaging about the NDP seriously — that the party is entirely unfit to form government given its allegedly radical views — then it’s even more damning that Ford has been unable to leap ahead of his social-democrat opponents in the polls.

The PCs seem to understand the lessons of the 2014 Toronto mayoral race, which saw Ford lose badly to a more moderate Tory option: insofar as “Ford Nation” exists, it’s basically just a synonym for “angrier conservatives.” Ford has a powerful appeal for people who were going to vote Tory anyway, but he repels many voters who would otherwise be willing to cast their ballot for a moderate conservative option. Which helps explain why Ford has been kept virtually under lock and key this campaign.

Now, he’s still currently looking at a majority government if the polls are right, and a narrow win is as good as a landslide once the election is over: the Tories will control the agenda for four years and have a free hand to implement their plan (voters will presumably learn what that is someday).

But he’s not going to owe his victory to a cult of personality or to his populist charisma. If he wins, it will for a far more banal reason: the governing party has utterly disqualified itself with voters, and the vast majority of those voters are looking for a change. Of the roughly 80 per cent of voters looking to change the party in charge at Queen’s Park, a slight majority prefer Ford to the NDP. And thanks to the way we count ballots in Ontario, the Tories will end up with a disproportionate share of the votes.

In other words, the outcome on election night will likely be largely the result of Ontario’s political history and culture.

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