State of Play – Ontario Election Update: Into the Homestretch

Election day is one week away, and we’ve got you covered with the latest developments on where the vote is heading. In this week’s update:

  • The PCs have found Ford’s recipe for success, but even if Ford wins what does PC success look like?
  • Del Duca’s homefield disadvantage and what comes next for the Liberals if he can’t win his seat
  • It’s now or never for Andrea Horwath – if she loses, who’s next in line to lead the NDP?
  • The PCs head into election day with a comfortable lead in the polls
  • Beyond the Headlines – a look at what we’re seeing beyond traditional election coverage
  • ICYMI – Intended Consequences looks at the major issues defining the campaign

Ford’s recipe for success

When you’re the incumbent, the election front-runner and haven’t made any major mistakes to date, what do you do?  You keep structure and order to your campaign, you stick to your message and campaign rollout, and you try and avoid any missteps along the way.  That means limited events a day and multiple platform re-announcements.  In Doug Ford’s case, he and the Ontario PCs have been methodical in their approach to this campaign, much like they have been for the last year in government.

This type of message discipline isn’t just helpful at keeping candidates from stepping on any rakes along the way, but it also demonstrates to voters a serious approach to how Ford would run a government in a second term.

Ford’s first year in office was hallmarked by policy chaos and revision, followed by two years of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The last year of his government has been fairly orderly and steady.  The campaign has also carried this through the first three weeks with a clear message that Ford will “Get It Done” if re-elected – the “It” being building and moving the province forward.

A long track record of limited media appearances or not appearing at candidate debates can negatively impact a leader and a party (think Stephen Harper in 2015), but Ford has literally been the face of the government’s response to the pandemic, standing at a podium every day for two years.

The opposition might want to accuse Ford of hiding, but it’s a hard accusation to make when the party leader has been accessible.

What does PC success look like?

While Ford’s re-election feels certain at this point, there are still a few key races up in the air. Ford’s Attorney General, Doug Downey, is facing a tough fight against Liberal candidate, and Mayor of Barrie, Jeff Lehman in Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte. Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy is trying to hold on to the PCs’ 2018 gains in Durham by keeping his Pickering—Uxbridge seat. Graydon Smith, Mayor of Bracebridge, is unexpectedly trying to keep Parry Sound—Muskoka blue as progressive support coalesces around Green candidate Matt Richter. Despite Ford’s path to a second majority, notable races like these could significantly alter the pool of MPPs from which Ford chooses his next Cabinet.

However, these battlegrounds are complemented by possible pickups like Essex, Timmins, or Niagara region seats. Clearly there are some tight races in the province, but Ford’s likelihood of re-election is strong enough that he can afford to lose some seats in certain ridings, especially if he can pick up seats in others. A net gain or loss of a couple of seats from 2018’s election result will do little to impact the bottom line of day-to-day governing.

For any party leader, success is a comfortable majority. It’s always disappointing to lose some candidates along the way, and inevitably some key figures from Cabinet don’t always get re-elected, but the end goal is ultimately a comfortable majority. When he was Premier of Alberta, Ernest Manning used to tell his key lieutenants just before election day, “well, let’s wait and see what the tide brings in for me to build a Cabinet.” Given how the polls are currently running, Ford is in a similar spot these days.

PC Campaign Stops: Niagara Falls, Cambridge, London-Fanshawe, Parry Sound-Muskoka, Vaughan-Woodbridge, Etobicoke, Scarborough, Don Valley West, Brampton, Hamilton

Del Duca’s homefield…disadvantage?

All eyes are on Vaughan—Woodbridge for the battle between Liberal leader, Steven Del Duca and Ford Cabinet Minister, Michael Tibollo. Leaders often have an advantage of winning their riding due to the provincial or national profile that comes with being the leader. Former Premier Kathleen Wynne won her riding in 2018 despite her party’s historic loss. But with Vaughan being a swing riding and with Del Duca having much less name recognition, a win is far from locked-in for the leader.

Regardless of his local results, Del Duca will have little time to rest on his laurels after June 2nd. He will immediately need to make the case to his own party that the Liberal election result is a success, and he deserves to stay leader. Key to this will be securing Official Opposition status and giving party members hope that a return to government is likely with one more election cycle.

What comes next for the Liberals?

The Liberals faced the worst defeat of a governing party in Ontario history, after four years of re-building, the OLP certainly won’t have the same fate on June 2. Del Duca is on track to have a newer and stronger OLP Team at Queen’s Park. With Kathleen Wynne retiring, Michael Coteau leaving to Federal politics and Michael Gravelle not seeking re-election, the OLP is leaning on their rookie candidates to keep traditionally Liberals seats red.

Will forming official opposition be considered a win for the OLP? After losing official party status, it will be interesting to see how Liberal candidates and party members view the results on June 2. Whatever the results, Del Duca will be right back into a campaign that will shape the government agenda or the opposition approach at Queen’s Park.

Liberal Campaign Stops: Ottawa, St-Albert, Kingston, Etobicoke, Ottawa, Durham, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Toronto, Richmond Hill, Markham, Don Valley East

It’s now or never for Andrea Horwath

Andrea Horwath, now COVID-free, is charging into the last week of the campaign – and potential last week of her leadership. Horwath relied on the star power of federal NDP leader, and former NDP MPP, Jagmeet Singh while she was in isolation, but six days off the campaign trail – over the course of the long weekend where the other party leaders made multiple stops a day – means the NDP has little momentum as election day draws near.

A seemingly last-minute promise to remove Highway 407 tolls for truck drivers and the suggestion that the party still has “surprises” in store for Doug Ford demonstrate the NDP’s final attempts to garner support. This, contrasted against Ford’s tightly controlled and confident campaign suggests Horwath will be unsuccessful in her goal to unseat the sitting Premier.

Who’s next in line to lead the NDP?

After four election cycles, a loss next week will likely mean the end of Horwath’s leadership. A leadership race offers the NDP an opportunity to address some of the major challenges it faced this election, like attempting to hold traditional support in southwestern and northern Ontario while building on their downtown Toronto success from 2018. The next NDP leader will have the difficult challenge of reshaping the NDP’s identity as the Liberals continue to shift to the left and the PCs solidify their position in the centre.

Current NDP caucus members that could be up for the challenge include Brampton’s Sara Singh, Davenport’s Marit Stiles, and Kitchener-Waterloo’s Catherine Fife. However, the NDP could struggle to hold on to these seats on June 2, meaning the pool of elected leadership candidates could be small – or non-existent.

NDP Campaign Stops: Etobicoke, Peterborough, Belleville, Brampton, Waterloo, Kitchener, Wellington-Halton Hills

The PCs head into election day with a comfortable lead

To help provide a flavour of what the electorate might be thinking, StrategyCorp aggregates polling from the campaign. Get the latest updates at ontariopolls.ca via our website.

Beyond the Headlines

For the rest of the campaign, we’ll be giving you a look at what our strategists are seeing beyond the headlines of traditional election coverage. This week:

A PC minority means Ford stays Premier. Although the opposition parties haven’t ruled out a coalition government if the PCs win a minority, don’t expect it to happen.  The NDP are likely facing a return to third place and a leadership race after the election. Teaming up with the Liberals would further blur the lines between orange and red, and make it even more difficult for the NDP to form government in the next election. Instead, expect a return to the polls in the next two years once a new NDP leader is in place and can confidently topple a minority government.

In Ontario, bland continues to work. Former Premier Bill Davis once said “bland works” to describe his government’s success. The same is true today. Ford’s low-risk approach to governing, and even lower-risk approach to campaigning, is working for the once bombastic populist Premier. Ford should stay on his self-described centrist path to continue building his PC coalition. Progress on his infrastructure priorities, continued incremental funding increases to healthcare and education, and on-going collaboration with all levels of government would mean Ford’s support will last well into the future.

Last Week’s Election Update. In case you missed it, get caught-up on last week’s campaign primer.

In case you missed it – Intended Consequences looks at the major issues defining the campaign

Intended Consequences, the official podcast of the StrategyCorp Institute, sat down with some of StrategyCorp’s own public affairs strategists as the election continues.

Moderated by Chris Loreto, the Institute welcomed Liberal strategist Brian Teefy, and PC strategist Garry Keller, to look at the top issues defining the campaign, how each party platform promises to address them, and which plan resonates most with voters.

The episode is out now wherever you get your podcasts, on our YouTube channel, and on our website. Over the course of the campaign, we’ll be releasing weekly episodes with the latest insights from StrategyCorp’s own strategists. Subscribe today!