Over the past several months, one overarching theme has run through virtually every story involving Ontario politics: the plummeting popularity of Premier Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative party he leads. The decline was evident months ago; in recent weeks, it’s become catastrophic. Ford’s big cabinet shuffle was an obvious attempt to regroup and do better, but it was derailed by a mini-scandal over patronage appointments (a scandalette?). After that flop, Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn penned a piece in which he asked a question that I’d been hearing in private conversations for weeks: Is Doug Ford doomed? Will he even last another 12 months before his caucus throws him out?
Around the time that Regg Cohn’s column appeared, so did a “Voice of Canada” poll by DART/MARU. What it found was generally in line with what a series of other polls have shown us — namely, that as the Ford PCs in Ontario have tanked, the federal Liberals’ situation has improved markedly. While the federal Conservatives remain in a strong position across most of Canada, the Liberal surge in Ontario has taken what appeared to be a probable Andrew Scheer-led Conservative federal government and made the picture much more uncertain.
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Many stories and columns have been written about this already. I’ve written some myself. But I wanted to take a different approach here, so I pored over the DART/MARU poll and decided to reach out to John Wright, CEO of DART and a pollster with decades of experience (also, full disclosure, a friend). What follows is our discussion, which focuses particularly on something that no one else is really talking about yet: Okay, the numbers are bad — so what can Ford and/or Scheer actually do about that?
Matt Gurney: Before we get into the meat of this, can you just give me your read of the broader situation, with a particular focus on Ontario?
John Wright: The polling shows a Liberal bounce in Ontario, but it demonstrates how vulnerable and precarious the terrain is for the Liberals. They lead the Conservatives by a pretty good margin right now, but it was the opposite case just a month ago. They are embattled, and that’s not a position of strength you would assume them to have — particularly within mere months of going to the polls, when they control the agenda and the narrative and have the PM who can command media coverage with little notice.
But let’s do some reckoning. Let’s assume Tories do well in Alberta and the Prairies and that their vote in the West is so amped up that it’s pushing the national numbers up for them without getting any more seats than they can. When you look at what’s left, the Liberals are competitive where they need the votes to win.
Compared to the 2015 election results, they are still in a very strong position in Atlantic Canada; in Ontario, they are just five points shy of what they got last time out; they are tied in Quebec with the Conservatives as the NDP vote has collapsed, sending two-thirds to the Conservatives and one-third to the Greens. In British Columbia, they are struggling in a tight race, as the Conservatives lead them, and the Greens and the NDP have benefited from Liberals who have left them for now.
So, on the whole, the Liberals are where they need to be and are very competitive in the same places where they hit pay dirt and formed the government in 2015. The numbers show that they are within striking distance of at least a minority, and, with Elizabeth May picking up some seats and already saying she will side with Mr. Trudeau if she has to, that could seal the deal for a second term.
But! I’ve also found that the most important harbinger for actual potential ballot-box outcome at this stage is not a question of who you would vote for if there was an election — that doesn’t matter this far out. What matters is whether the public believes that the government and its leader deserve to be re-elected. In recent Ontario examples, six months before the latest provincial vote, Kathleen Wynne was at 19 per cent in “deserve to be re-elected” and 28 per cent in claimed voter preference. She ended up with 19 per cent of the popular vote. In 2011, McGuinty was the reverse: low on voter preference [32 per cent] but high [36 per cent] on “deserve to be re-elected.” He won his minority with 37 per cent.
Gurney: Where are we today?
Wright: Trudeau is at 24 per cent “deserve to be re-elected” nationally. Even in Ontario, where he has just had a 12-point bounce, to 40 per cent, with voter preferences, his “deserve to be re-elected” number is anemic at 29 per cent. That’s a big, big gap. I suspect that the “vote” and “deserve” bounce has been caused by the withering ads being run against Scheer as being weak and a clone of Ford — or at least in his back pocket. They are putting some iron into the action right now with the attack ads, and they’re having some effect.
Gurney: I confess that I hadn’t previously paid any attention to the distinction between “voter preference” and “deserve to be re-elected.” But it makes sense, considering that the provincial Liberals in Ontario are also rising in polls, even without a leader. That suggests to me that some of their support is just parked there as a placeholder “not Doug Ford” option. But let’s talk about that — Ford’s options. There was a lot of speculation that the unusually long break between sessions at the legislature is intended to give him and his party time to cool off and regroup. Well, he has the time now — what should he do with it?
Wright: First, the premier needs to go to the cottage while the heat is turned down by his new staff and stay out of sight as much as possible. Second, new ministers with new portfolios should be given leeway and profile on their files so that it’s not all about Mr. Ford all the time. My advice: turn the volume down on everything. Stop being boisterous and all-consuming. It has not worked. Start talking slowly and quietly, all the time, and prepare for a potential battle in the fall with the teachers and perhaps everyone else aggrieved with the government. It could be very, very big and ugly. It could be. If so, let ministers handle it and craft it in such a way that it is the new launch of the government positioning itself as fair and reasonable.
A strike could be polarizing, which means you want to demonstrate that you are going to do the right thing — likely legislate back to work — but use this episode to curry favour and help bring voters onside. This has to be about tone. If done properly, it could work to their advantage.
Gurney: A lot of people are speculating, and some are now speculating openly, that Ford is done. Is he?
Wright: I don’t know. The Tories need to improve 2.5 points a year for the next three years. If they do that, they go into the next election in a competitive position. I don’t know if they will, but it’s not impossible. The Liberals also won’t have a new leader until next March, and that may shift the dynamic one way or the other. But Ford’s new team and cabinet have at least 18 months to demonstrate that they can govern as a viable choice.
Gurney: Okay, let’s talk about the next three months. If you’re Andrew Scheer, and you need another 5 to 10 points in Ontario, then, short of somehow going back in time and stopping John Connor — I mean, Doug Ford — from ever being born, what can you do? What can the federal Tories do, if anything, to improve their fortunes irrespective of Ford’s popularity (or lack thereof)?
Wright: I would be doing a broad introduction of Andrew Scheer to voters now through paid advertising as a normal, moderate guy with a family. Show that he has roots in Ontario but knows the country. He needs to counter the mantra from the Liberals about the middle class to talk about the concerns he has about affordability and making sure that no one is excluded from opportunity. In Ontario, he’s not going to win anything in downtown Toronto, so he’s got to be working his ground game in the 905, where the suburbs really matter. Most political operatives will tell you that summer is not the time to introduce somebody, because no one is paying attention. Well, the fact that the Liberals have been running ads and they’ve had a bounce puts that theory to rest. Also, if there is a teachers’ strike after Labour Day, and the Ontario legislature has to be brought back to deal with it, that battle will hinder the chances of getting any introduction through the fray. I say, better to do it now.
Second, there is a real echo effect going on in the country — how the Trudeau Liberals have treated Albertans and others has led many to believe that if you don’t vote Liberal, they cast you off. This is hurting “Brand Liberal” in a big way. A person in Ontario who sees what is going on can read between the lines, and while lots of overt things have hurt the Liberals — the India trip, the SNC-Lavalin affair, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott leaving caucus, and the like — the brand damage is more insidious and corrosive than the overt problems. It plays into the notion that Trudeau is a hypocrite and, as the ads are already saying, “not as advertised.” This is especially a problem because the Liberal brand has long been about unity. They’re not known as unifiers today.
Lastly, the issues that Trudeau has actually run a government on have been, to a large extent, ephemeral to most Canadians. That’s not for one moment to diminish the importance of some of these issues, such as climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, gender equality, and even helping “the middle class.” But these concepts are not concrete in many minds. They’re things for “others” to either experience or to solve. The Liberals have left a lot of bread-and-butter issues on the table that Scheer can use to galvanize voters.
Gurney: That’s all good stuff. I agree with it all. But it’s not really about Ford.
Wright: The federal Tories can’t do much of anything about Ford’s popularity beyond hoping that things don’t get worse and that the possibility of a teachers’ strike doesn’t explode. That could come with a month to go until the federal vote. How the province acts on this could have a big impact on the federal Conservatives fighting in Ontario for needed seats. This is going to be a tight road to walk, indeed.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.