Shachi Kurl is the executive director at the Angus Reid Institute
We may never know what curse from what grandmother from which old country has bedeviled the Ontario Progressive Conservatives so badly. Since Patrick Brown’s tearful news conference Jan. 24, the party has been beset by infighting, chaos and public rifts in its attempt to choose a new leader.
Saturday night’s convention didn’t exactly right the ship. In the absence of a new leader on stage with celebratory balloons, party executives sternly told delegates to go home, only to announce Doug Ford’s victory, only to have that result disputed by his very close runner-up, Christine Elliott.
In a spring election that was supposed to be an easy win for the Progressive Conservatives, it is any wonder if Ontario Liberals are beginning the week absolutely giddy?
Mr. Ford’s leadership represents Premier Kathleen Wynne’s only chance for an improbable comeback. No other provincial leader in the country has had approval numbers as abysmal as hers for so long. If Ontario voters are absolutely set on change after 14 years of Liberal government, nothing will save her, or the party.
But there is an opportunity for Ms. Wynne to turn the election into a referendum about the candidate and his values. Should this happen, the door to Liberal re-election goes from slammed shut to cracked open a little. The question is not whether Mr. Ford has a strong and motivated fan base among die-hard conservatives – he does – but he risks driving away soft conservatives.
While several polls show the Ontario Conservatives with an overwhelming lead, the PCPO universe is softer than might be assumed. The latest study from us at the Angus Reid Institute found just less than a quarter (23 per cent) of Ontarians say they’ll “definitely support” the party in a coming election. Roughly the same number (25 per cent) say they’ll never consider the PCPO. What’s left is a massive category of more than half the province (52 per cent) that says it will think about the Ontario Conservatives, but have far from locked in. True, there are varying levels of commitment among this bunch, some are leaning harder than others. But the biggest is the maybe group. Maybe does not always equal yes.
Among these soft voters, a major segment – fully two in five – says the man crowned Saturday night by the PCPO as leader makes them less likely to cast a vote for the party. The “maybe Conservatives” most turned off by the Ford factor are found in the city of Toronto – and among millennials. Where young urban voters were once written off, they have become powerful influencers in recent provincial and federal elections.
That said, in the 905 – the voter-rich ring of suburbs surrounding Toronto – and in Hamilton, the Niagara region, in Northern Ontario, more soft conservatives are inclined to say Mr. Ford’s leadership “makes no difference” to their voting intentions.
Voters across political lines are clear about what’s important to them. They have identified the economy, electricity costs and leadership (more than any other province) as top issues in the province today. In doing so, they’re signalling what they want from Mr. Ford.
If he continues to focus on social values as he did last week by musing about the abortion debate – rather than on fiscal prudence – he gives his opponents a powerful opportunity to engage in a debate on values and coalesce around a single opponent to stop him. It happened to John Tory on the issue of religious school funding in 2007. It could happen again.
It bears reminding that campaigns matter. Mr. Ford at his best is effective, charming and friendly. With those strengths and a disciplined campaign, Team Wynne can’t win. But I am as inclined to predict Mr. Ford will stay consistently on message for three months as I am to give the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario’s executive an A+ in event planning.
That candidates often defy the odds bears reminding. Christy Clark’s political comeback in 2013 is legendary. Greg Selinger recovered from an insurmountable deficit in 2011, to say nothing of the Ontario Liberals’ own ability to pull rabbits out of hats, twice.
If there is one thing we’ve learned, elections have become less like the long-distance running Ms. Wynne excels at, where endurance, experience and a large lead favour the winner, and more like the Ford family’s beloved football, where anything can happen in the last 10 minutes of play. Game on.