At the start of a week in which they needed to reverse their negative momentum, the Ontario Liberals pulled out the sort of war-room research that powered their past campaigns.
With great fanfare, Kathleen Wynne and a pair of her ministers announced on Monday that Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats had failed to take into account billions of dollars in recent government spending when costing their platform.
The Liberals’ case was a bit confusing and overstated: Even if the error was on the scale they claimed, it didn’t quite cause the NDP’s entire plan to collapse. Still, the intended effect – the NDP on the defensive, the Liberals again making opponents look like untrustworthy amateurs – wasn’t altogether implausible.
But almost immediately, the reaction felt different this time. Ms. Horwath laughed it off, and so did many pundits, as desperation from a governing party trailing not just the Tories but the perennially third-place NDP in most polls. And who were these Liberals, at war with the provincial Auditor-General over their accounting, to pass judgment on others’ numbers?
Unless more voters were moved by Ms. Wynne’s messaging than it initially appeared, this was the Liberals’ plight in a nutshell.
Operationally, they are still strongest among Ontario’s parties in some ways – the most seasoned opposition researchers, the best advertising, probably the top voter-identification system.
None of those advantages matter, heading into the June 7 election, if voters simply aren’t willing to buy what they’re selling. And all indications are that the Liberals have finally reached that point.
Not that Ms. Wynne’s campaign team hasn’t already tried many strategies to buy new life.
A few months ago, the idea was to eschew the “steady hands” argument incumbent governments often make. Ms. Wynne’s strategists explained that despite economic metrics being strong, many Ontarians felt left behind. And their opinion suggested some respect for Ms. Wynne’s toughness, despite her unpopularity.
So despite her government’s longevity, the Liberals would run her as a change agent, the leader you’d want in your corner – with policies such as a minimum-wage increase, daycare, a basic-income experiment. They went so far as to air a television ad contending life was still tough for too many people.
That made some sense when Ms. Wynne’s likeliest replacement as premier was Patrick Brown, who might have been cast as a milquetoast agent of the status quo. It made less sense when he was replaced as Progressive Conservative Leader by Doug Ford.
By the time the campaign began last week, the Liberals’ pitch had subtly but significantly changed. In the race’s first leaders’ debate, Ms. Wynne tried to convey that things were going well enough that it would be a mistake to change course.
Meanwhile, the Liberals tried to define Mr. Ford as too scary to consider seriously. But here, too, things did not go as planned. The slew of ads they ran introducing Ontarians to the “real Doug Ford” mostly served, Liberal sources say, to drive voters to the NDP.
So just as the campaign officially began, the “real Doug Ford” spots were taken out of circulation. The Liberals shifted to a more positive message about their record – and also to taking sharper aim at the New Democrats.
In other words, the party that made mincemeat of opponents in every other election this century now finds itself vigorously defending a status quo it argued months ago wasn’t good enough, unable to effectively attack the alternative leading in the polls and stuck taking aim at a third party it was previously able to treat as irrelevant.
Although it’s early for obituaries – voters could conceivably be more put off by the other options and come back to them – the grumbling from Liberals outside the upper echelons of Ms. Wynne’s campaign team is already audible. They can feel support bleeding away, and nobody seems to know how to stanch it.
But that presumes there is some remedy they just haven’t landed on yet. And maybe – after almost 15 years in power, and all the baggage that comes with it – it’s too late for that.
In the last election, in 2014, Ms. Wynne was able to put a fresh face on an old government after replacing Dalton McGuinty. Now, she’s carrying all the same baggage as him and then some, courtesy of her own controversies – around everything from the privatization of Hydro One to by-election manoeuvring – and it’s easier for voters just to write her off.
Almost exactly as they made their critique of the NDP platform, the Liberals launched a new TV ad about how even though things aren’t perfect in Ontario, they’re pretty good.
It looks nicer than the other parties’ ads, as usual. But tellingly, rather than Ms. Wynne on camera, an unidentified woman is delivering the script on her behalf.
All the production values in the world can only go so far if voters just don’t want to hear from you any more.