David McLaughlin has been a PC campaign manager and strategist in Manitoba and New Brunswick, as well as a former chief of staff in federal and provincial Conservative government
Go big or stay home.
That is the basic path-to-victory question facing Doug Ford and the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party less than three months before Ontarians vote on June 7.
Which approach will net Mr. Ford the 63 seats needed for a majority government? Go big: expand his appeal to reach urban voters, higher educated professionals, women and progressive conservatives. Or stay home: focus on a core vote Ford Nation strategy of suburban dwellers, small towns, rural Ontario and social conservatives.
Both runner-up Christine Elliott and third-place loser Caroline Mulroney offered the “go big” option. In the wake of former leader Patrick Brown’s meltdown over sexual harassment allegations, an immediate consensus formed that the next leader had to be a woman and had to be a centrist. Centre-right for sure, but this being Ontario, straddling the middle line of the highway.
That consensus began to fray the moment Mr. Ford came out against the party platform’s carbon tax plank. Followed shortly thereafter by the classic division of the party into the elites and establishment on one side and you-and-me on the other, Mr. Ford defined the race at the outset, never swaying in his message and forcing others to respond to him.
It was a classic insurgency campaign – the second in as many leadership races for the Ontario Tories given Mr. Brown’s come-from-nowhere membership bonanza last time out that overwhelmed Ms. Elliott’s second try for the job. Yet, it was as narrow a victory in the party’s leadership contest as possible, winning on points but actually losing the popular and absolute riding votes to Ms. Elliott.
While Ms. Mulroney and Ms. Elliott played the inside game of asking party members to compare each of them to Ms. Wynne, Mr. Ford spoke to both members and voters with his simple, grievance messages of high taxes and big government, giving him the sharpest contrast against the Liberal premier. Between a novice Mulroney and a perennial runner-up Elliott, Mr. Ford’s message and outsized personality proved the most authentic.
That authenticity, though, comes as a double-edged sword and, with it, clues as to which path to victory Mr. Ford can take.
Before Saturday’s vote, the PCs had mostly to keep their election focus all on Ms. Wynne and her 15-year-old government. Time for a change was tailor-made to a Tory campaign framed as a referendum on Kathleen Wynne. Now we are almost guaranteed this election will now be a referendum on Doug Ford. His polarizing personality and controversial family history ensure no less.
In today’s leader-centric politics, parties and their leaders don’t just share the same brand; they are the same brand. Knowing this, parties strike a bargain with their leaders. They give themselves over to their leader in exchange for electoral success. Parties then take on the brand of their leader, warts and all.
With current polling showing Ford perceived more unfavourably with voters than his leadership opponents, what kind of bargain will the party and caucus strike with their new leader? Does the storied PC Party of Ontario want to become the Ford Nation Party of Ontario? Will it even have a choice?
If Mr. Ford moves away from his authenticity, he risks becoming just another politician to his Ford Nation voters, de-motivating them; if he doubles-down on it, he risks alienating swing PC votes he needs while, at the same time, keeping disgruntled Liberal voters at home.
But Mr. Ford has two things going for him. Both matter. A lot.
First, he is facing the least popular premier in decades in Ms. Wynne. Change is in the air and Mr. Ford – who personifies that change – stands to benefit most.
Second, after four consecutive election losses, his party is hungrier for power than they actually are for Mr. Ford. Most will unite around him despite the misgivings of at least half the party membership and virtually all the PC caucus.
When it comes to an election just weeks away, these are the best winning conditions you can have.
Successful politics is usually about voter addition, not subtraction. It’s also more often about risk avoidance than risk taking.
Addition is going big. Risk avoidance is staying home.
So, what’ll it be, Doug? Go big or stay home?