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COMMENTARY: Why Ontario Tories remain in driver’s seat despite their demolition derby

A recent Ipsos poll found that Ontarians believe the Tories, not the NDP, provide the best option for change in Ontario.
A recent Ipsos poll found that Ontarians believe the Tories, not the NDP, provide the best option for change in Ontario. Global News File

It may come as a surprise that the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party continues to lead the popular vote, despite being in such disarray.

An Ipsos poll released by Global News earlier this week shows that if the election were held tomorrow, the Tories would win with 38 per cent of the popular vote, well ahead of Wynne’s Liberals (29 per cent) and Horwath’s NDP (26 per cent).

WATCH: Ontario PC leadership candidates square off in debate

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Ontario PC leadership candidates square off in debate – Feb 15, 2018

In the seat-rich 905 region of the GTA, where the election will be won or lost, the Tories have a double-digit lead over the Liberals, which likely delivers the PCs a majority government if the election were held today.

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But how can this be? The PC Party is a hot mess right now: leaderless, filled with “rot,” and with a former leader embroiled in scandal who is once again seeking his old job from which he claims not to have resigned.

READ MORE: Patrick Brown’s Ontario PC Party leadership bid approved

Firstly, the unpopularity of the premier is the underlying theme of this election. Eight in 10 Ontarians want to see another party in power at Queen’s Park, while only two in 10 want to see the premier’s government re-elected. Despite the noise that the PC Party is creating, this underlying preference for change has held constant.

By comparison, before the writ dropped on the 2015 federal election, three in 10 Canadians wanted to see the Harper government re-elected – 10 points higher Wynne’s current score – and the Harper Tories went on to lose the election. Given this comparison, the Ontario Liberals are in deep trouble. Not even Patrick Brown’s strange travails have shaken this deep desire for change.

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PC vs Liberal vs NDP – it could be anyone’s race in Ontario – Feb 17, 2018

Secondly, Ontarians believe that the Tories, not the NDP, provide the best option for change in Ontario. Who leads the party is of less consequence. Ipsos polling shows that, regardless of whether Mulroney, Elliott, Ford or, yes, even Brown leads the party, the result is similar: Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals are defeated.

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While Brown and Ford are riskier candidates given higher levels of unfavourability, these numbers are driven mostly by people who never would have voted for them in the first place and offset by higher levels of favourability among the Tory base.

Thirdly, the Tories have differentiated themselves as leaders on most of the issues that matter to Ontarians in this election. On the economy and jobs, lower taxes, lower energy costs, integrity, debt and balanced budgets, and crime and public safety – the 2nd through 7th most important issues of the campaign – the Tories are picked as the party who is best to manage each issue by a significant margin.

On the No. 1 issue, health care, there is seen to be little differentiation among the parties.

READ MORE: Ontarians trust PCs with key election issues, Ipsos poll finds

The Liberals only have an advantage on less salient issues in this campaign, none of which crack the top 10: marijuana, education and students’ issues.

In order for the Liberals to appeal to a wider base in this election, they will need to differentiate themselves in a positive way on issues that matter to a broader spectrum of Ontarians, rather than playing in the margins, or make the issues where they have an advantage more relevant to Ontarians.

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WATCH: Kathleen Wynne says ‘uncertainty’ will be the ballot question in 2018

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Kathleen Wynne says ‘uncertainty’ will be the ballot question in 2018 – Dec 19, 2017

But with all of the attention turned towards the Tories, the premier will have a hard time defining the agenda. The Liberals have tried to do this with the minimum-wage issue, but this was foiled when the other parties agreed that it was a good idea in principle, but that it was the execution of it by the Grits that was bungled.

WATCH: Andrea Horwath discusses how Patrick Brown’s resignation will affect upcoming election

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Andrea Horwath discusses how Patrick Brown’s resignation will affect upcoming election – Jan 25, 2018

The wildcard is Andrea Horwath. While she is popular, her party only leads on social assistance, climate change and corruption, none of which are leading issues in the campaign so far. In order for her personal popularity to translate into vote support for her party, she’ll need to cut through on the issues that matter most to Ontarians: health, jobs/economy, taxes and energy.

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Despite the peculiar behaviour of Patrick Brown and the party’s response to it all, the Tories remain in the driver’s seat.

Ontarians remain firm in their desire for change, and that the PC Party represents the best alternative to the current government, regardless of which of the major contenders leads it.

Darrell Bricker is CEO, Ipsos Global Public Affairs