In the past year, the Premier of Ontario has gone from seeing some of the highest approval ratings to some of the lowest. What does his political future look like? Is he dead in the water, or does he still have a shot at winning re-election?
By: Luke Montalbano
Photo Credit: Le Droit - the Canadian Press
During the pandemic, Ontario has gone from province-wide lockdowns, to complete reopening, to small re-implementation of restrictions, to full lockdowns once again. During this time, the Premier, Doug Ford, remained relatively popular seeing upwards of 50% approval at any one point in time. It appeared that no matter what he did, he would remain supported by most.
But his tenure had not always been this way. Before the pandemic, he was resoundingly unpopular due to his stances on the teachers’ union, as well as economic programs implemented by his government. Many compared him to a mellower version of the former President of the United States, Donald Trump. Of course, this comparison falls short in relation to social issues, with Doug Ford being a social liberal. Nonetheless, his bombastic rhetoric often painted him in a negative tone, particularly with the media.
Public opinion was solidly in his favour at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. His quick response time and active participation in the effort to fight against the spread of it seemed reminiscent of a war-time leader. This sentiment was further captured by a poll released in August of 2020 by Angus Reid Institute, which showed Doug Ford with an approval rating of 66%.
The Approval rating of Doug Ford, 2019-2020. Photo Credit: Angus Reid Institute
Riding on this wave of support, Mr. Ford has been empowered to produce bold policy initiatives that have taken a step too far, even in the eyes of his most loyal supporters.
In late April, Doug Ford proposed a series of policies to allow for the Ontario Police Department to arbitrarily stop people without reason. Although done to counter interregional travel, it was widely regarded as a move that impeded upon the rights granted to Canadians in the constitution, specifically the clause on freedom of movement. The concern was particularly acute within visible minorities. With province-wide lockdowns during a period of vaccine implementation, his popularity has plummeted, severely wounding his chances at re-election. In fact, a new poll released by Abacus Data has put the Liberals out in front of the Progressive Conservatives by 1% (35% to 34%) - an increase of 16% of the popular vote from the 2018 election, in which the Liberal Party was relegated to third party status.
Polling for voting intentions for the 42nd legislature in Ontario. Photo Credit: Abacus Data
Another danger to his campaign falls in the category of vote splitting. In 2020, a right-wing breakoff party called the “New Blue Party” was formed after a Progressive Conservative (PC) Member of the Provincial Parliament (MPP) left due to numerous disputes with the Doug Ford leadership team. The New Blue Party has actively opposed lockdowns and has openly supported social conservative policies. The traditional base of the PC Party of Ontario has been social conservates, who constitute over 50% of their membership. But with social conservatives becoming increasingly frustrated with Doug Ford, it is likely the New Blue Party will siphon modest support from this traditional base. Should Doug Ford’s party lose as little as 1% or 2% of their base vote to the New Blue Party, this could drive losses in major battleground ridings and possibly cost them a government.
Social conservatives have been shown to switch allegiances before. In the 2019 federal election, a right-wing break-off party, the People’s Party of Canada, split the vote in many crucial ridings for the Conservatives, ultimately costing the Conservative Party of Canada significant ground in parliament. The same could occur in Ontario. It appears the danger of vote splitting within the conservative base of Ontario is becoming more and more of a reality every day.
But how can Doug Ford retain the ability for the PCs to remain as the governing party of Ontario? What can he do to soothe his base while once again becoming popular with Ontarians in Toronto and the North? The answer is complex but can be narrowed down to one word: consistency.
The Ford strategy was successful in the first two waves of the pandemic: proper measures were in place for restrictions to keep people safe while also ensuring that Ontarians’ mental health could be adequately supported with certain facilities. This strategy was statistically one of the most effective in Canada on a per capita basis and launched Mr. Ford’s popularity to astronomical proportions. If the Ford government can keep their COVID approach consistent, and with a proper balance of safety and freedom of movement, the Ford campaign could very well be saved from sinking like the Titanic.
Written by Politics Writer Luke Montalbano