Many party leaders spend years trying to perfect every aspect of their pitches to voters, only to be doomed by a single mistake or sudden shift in mood.
Doug Ford had a couple of months to prepare for his first election leading Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives. He lacks a coherent message and is constantly on the defensive, but will likely wind up premier of Canada’s most populous province anyway.
The Tories’ support may be eroding slightly, but every poll still shows them leading, with Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats some distance back and Kathleen Wynne’s governing Liberals in third.
But this 29-day campaign, more sprint than marathon, must feel endless to Mr. Ford’s team. It’s plainly in survival mode, trying to make it to the finish line without losing the lead it was gifted at the start by virtue of being the most obvious alternative to an unpopular government.
Nobody could reasonably have expected Mr. Ford to put together a well-oiled machine, given the state of the party he inherited in March. And much of the recent trouble – such as the strange, developing story of a PC candidate in Brampton stepping aside amid reports of alleged involvement in a breach of toll-road commuter data – appears to be fallout from the way the PCs were run under Patrick Brown.
But Mr. Ford has not exactly signalled a bold new era of sound judgment. Among the headaches this week was news that he violated Ontario’s campaign-finance rules by attending a political fundraiser, which party leaders are not allowed to do. (Mr. Ford said he was misinformed about the event’s nature.)
Meanwhile, after overturning a couple of the more contentious local nominations from Mr. Brown’s time, Mr. Ford created his own. That included kiboshing a competitive nomination campaign in London to appoint Andrew Lawton – a former Rebel Media contributor whose past comments about women, Muslims and gay people are fodder for the Tories’ opponents provincewide.
As with cleaning up the PCs’ organization, Mr. Ford had little time to put together a policy platform. But what seemed to be his strategy for that – running on a few big commitments – has given way to something weirdly unfocused.
Mr. Ford is constantly announcing new promises. Some, such as an income-tax cut and billions for transit, are drawn from Mr. Brown’s old platform. On top of those, Mr. Ford has added big ones, including cuts to corporate and fuel taxes. He has not announced a single specific idea for how he intends to pay for any of this, while eliminating the province’s existing deficit, without the carbon-tax revenues that Mr. Brown’s calculus rested on. This encouraged speculation about which promises he would break or surprise cuts he would make.
There are various explanations floating around for why he is promising so much. Among them is that his team wants to constantly give him a new script because he is not the sort of leader who can be trusted to stick to the same message daily.
That points to a third issue, beyond party and platform: Mr. Ford has not been campaigning very well, personally. He was visibly nervous in the first leaders’ debate, is uncomfortable answering journalists’ questions and is largely being shielded from scrutiny.
If all this adds up to ostensibly losing the air war, Stephen Harper’s frequently joyless federal campaigns showed that’s not always at odds with an effective operation – if a party is doing good below-the-radar stuff such as mobilization of its supporters through direct targeting. But the Tories aren’t blowing anyone out of the water that way, either. Their digital messaging is not terribly sophisticated and their voter-profiling, according to sources familiar with it, is less advanced than the Liberals’.
Other than lack of preparation time, a common explanation for the stumbles from inside the Tories’ world is that Mr. Ford’s campaign team is factionalized, especially between long-time loyalists and political professionals recently brought in. There are frequent battles for Mr. Ford’s ear, which might explain the campaign’s unusual about-faces, such as Mr. Ford taking opposite positions on the province’s Greenbelt on consecutive days.
In another campaign, such flip-flops might be held up as pivotal moments at which front-runners’ fortunes turned for the worse.
Like everything else in this one, they don’t seem to matter – maybe because voters’ minds were made up beforehand, or many consider the PCs the least of three evils, or Mr. Ford’s supporters see a superseding common touch.
Still, some Tories were expressing relief to reach a long weekend in which a royal wedding will dominate attention. By the time it’s over, there will be little more than two weeks to hope their problems – the ones Mr. Ford inherited, and the ones he has made himself – don’t catch up with them.