Chairman's Desk

How Ford Turns Conventional Election Wisdom On Its Head

Looking ahead to election day, many Ontarians have decided there is china in the shop in need of breaking. Ford may well prove to be their chosen bull.

Handicapping political campaigns is not easy at the best of times.

That said, a polling perspective is forming on the upcoming Ontario provincial election. If the June 7 election were held today, polls consistently tell us (48 of the last 50, in fact) that Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives would handily win a majority government.

However, the election is not today. And history tells us that campaigns matter. They matter because not only do they provide a litmus test for voters to evaluate and test their future leaders under pressure, campaigns are when voters really pay attention to politics and political choices.

For the Progressive Conservatives, this may be what keeps them up at night.

Just how will their leader, Doug Ford, perform under the bright lights of a campaign – especially against a tested and capable campaigner like Premier Wynne?

Does Ford have any skeletons buried deep in his closet? Will he emerge a disciplined campaigner, focused on his core message? How will he perform during the debates? Are there any looming gaffes on the horizon?

For a PC party hoping to form government after 14 years wandering the wilderness of opposition, this is their main risk.

What’s more, untested leaders come with untested teams and untested platforms. Patrick Brown’s People’s Guarantee is gone, with little indication as to what Ford will campaign on in its place. When all of that happens, literally within days of the start of a campaign, problems are bound to occur.

In other words, it is all fun and games until the cut and thrust of the campaign starts. Having run and lost many campaigns, I have considerable sympathy for this analysis. Campaigns are much harder than is immediately apparent.

It takes a long time for teams to blend – not just with their leaders, but with each other. There are many potholes along the road to victory and it is very hard – actually I’d say impossible – to avoid mistakes the first time out.

Or so the traditional wisdom would tell us.

But it is possible there is a fundamental error in this analysis.

What if instead of untried, untested and risky, Ford is actually, from the voters’ perspective, tried, tested and true?

Ford’s approach to politics is well-known across Ontario – gaffes and all. Consider his brother Rob’s time as mayor, Doug Ford’s time as city councillor and mayoral candidate, as well as his time in the limelight as a public figure and quasi-celebrity.

After all, he received 330,000 votes in his race for mayor of Toronto, just shy of John Tory’s 390,000. And, as many observers believed, had the race been a few weeks longer, he would have won.

Looking ahead to election day, many Ontarians have decided there is china in the shop in need of breaking. Ford may well prove to be their chosen bull.

Polling supports this analysis. If you look closely, undecided voters have not materially grown since Ford was chosen leader, and the poll of polls shows the PCs are more likely to form a majority government with Ford than with former leader Brown.

Conventional wisdom would have told us that Brown’s hasty departure would have pushed a number of soft PC supporters back into the undecided column until they could take a fuller measure of the new leader.

They appear to have given Ford a test drive. They have said no to Premier Wynne and the Liberals. And they have taken the next step: they are saying yes to a Doug Ford-led PC party.

It is often said in politics, your successor is your legacy. Ernie Eves begot Dalton McGuinty. David Miller, Rob Ford. Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau.

Just as, in the end, Donald Trump proved an effective foil against Hillary Clinton, it may well be Doug Ford is the right foil against Premier Wynne.

As with all predictions, this is just that – a prediction. Time and one of the most interesting and wild campaigns in recent memory will prove it right or wrong.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 15, 2018.

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