There are Liberals at Queen’s Park who, if you ask them what’s in their playbook to win this spring’s general election in Ontario, will tell you that the central, perhaps vital, hinge in their plans is the expectation that their main opponents, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, will fall flat on their faces.
They say this in all seriousness and with good justification.
Since taking government in 2003, a Liberal premier has sought a renewed mandate in general elections in 2007, 2011 and 2014, and has gone into those elections behind or tied with its chief opponent, the Ontario PCs. And in each election, the Liberals walked away with majority governments chiefly because the PC leader had disastrous campaigns and/or the PC war room made dumb mistakes.
And so here Ontario is again. Just ahead of the writ period for an election expected on June 7, a Liberal premier — it’s Kathleen Wynne still — has her party about as far back in the polls as it’s possible for a Liberal in Ontario to be. In fact, a handful of polls since the new year have the Wynne Liberals tied or behind the NDP.
But will history repeat itself a fourth time?
Wynne, though tremendously unpopular, is a very good campaigner and her war room is experienced and smart.
Her chief opponent will be Doug Ford who has never led a political party and who, every poll says, is a polarizing figure who will energize and mobilize factions in society who, for lack of a better term, would be anyone-but-Ford voters.
WATCH: Doug Ford takes shots at Liberals in first day as PC leader
The Liberals will try to win those anyone-but-Ford voters with a campaign based on ideas that will almost certainly appeal to the left side of the political spectrum where they will hope to hoover up NDP supporters easily scared by the prospects of Ford becoming the province’s 26th premier.
But even the best Liberal campaign ever is unlikely to succeed unless Ford and the PCs stumble and fall. Liberals need enough voters to conclude, as many voters did when an unpopular Dalton McGuinty ran for the last time in 2011, that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.
WATCH: Branding Doug Ford
So watch for much Ford-baiting by a Liberal war room who will make it mission No. 1 to draw Ford off his game, to get him or some of his candidates to say something stupid, to gin up a culture war or otherwise get the Tories to talk about anything other than the record of the McGuinty/Wynne Liberals.
Ford will portray himself as an outsider working for everyday Ontarians and his opponents will show him to be what he actually is: a well-connected millionaire insider. Ford will be (and has already been) called a racist, a so-con, a thug and worse by Liberals and their proxies. The Liberal war room this week has been issuing daily “Ford’s Fake News” bulletins. Expect more of this.
And yet, whatever they throw at him, may not stick.
“He’s a tough opponent in that regard because he’s so well known,” said Dennis Matthews after Ford’s victory. Matthews is a Toronto-based marketing and communications executive but, from 2005-2010 was a key part of the federal Conservative team that helped make Stephen Harper prime minister. And while many other Harper-era Conservative staffers picked a side in the just-concluded PC Party of Ontario race, Matthews, an expert in political branding and advertising, remained neutral.
He says that it will be hard to get voters to change their opinions of voters. Several pollsters have found Ford to be “a polarizing figure” and by definition, that means voters have, by and large, made their minds up about him.
“I’m really skeptical of the ability to take things that he says or does and have them have a huge impact on his brand at this point. People know who he is,” Matthews said.
Ford is comfortable in his own skin. (By contrast, one of his predecessors, Tim Hudak, often had trouble looking confident in his own skin and voters noticed.) And in the leadership campaign just concluded, Ford showed excellent message discipline. Ontarians who may not have seen or heard much of Doug Ford since his late brother Rob was mayor of Toronto may be surprised to see that Doug has some charm of his own, that he has a way of communicating with voters that many — a majority even — will find refreshing.
Warren Kinsella, the Toronto-based lawyer and author who was part of the Liberal war room that helped McGuinty win three times, argues that the campaign ahead is Ford’s to lose.
“In a scenario like this where so many people have made their minds up about [Wynne], the ballotis now Doug Ford. That’s what this campaign’s all about. [Voters] like the PC brand. They’re just concerned about Doug’s brand. He needs to alleviate their anxieties.”
Matthews agreed that the party brand is in good shape “despite everything that’s happened.”
READ MORE COMMENTARY: Doug Ford can win Ontario election if he keeps things simple
And now voters will want to take their measure of the party’s new leader. Matthews, who was also impressed by Ford’s discipline in the just-concluded campaign, is betting enough voters will like what they see to make Ford premier.
“When they say it’s a movement, they’re not joking,” Matthews said. “There are a lot of people who are just interested in him and interested in talking about him. It’s pretty incredible to watch.”
Still, the fight must be fought and the Wynne Liberals are not about to concede a thing.
“The challenge [the Liberals] have is, the more they attack the [Progressive] Conservatives, that vote goes to the NDP,” Matthews said. That could have the effect of elevating the NDP past the Liberals in the popular vote but still would not be enough to keep the Tories out of first place.
“[The Liberals] need to find a way to keep [NDP Leader] Andrea Horwath in witness protection to make sure this is a race between themselves and the Conservatives. They have to have that frame between the two parties.”
The Liberals must also avoid making it a “Wynne-versus-Ford” battle but instead make it about Liberal ideas and principles versus PC ideas and principles (or lack thereof.)
“[Wynne] has said the campaign is ‘not about me, it’s about the issues,’ and I think she’s doing that because she’s not dumb, she knows that if it is about her — the most unpopular premier in Canada — she’s gonna lose,” said Kinsella. “She wants it to be about ideas because she thinks he’s the big bear on a little bicycle in the circus.”
Indeed, Wynne’s surprise decision Thursday to prorogue the legislature at Queen’s Park in order to deliver a Speech from the Throne on Monday fits in with that strategy. The throne speech will, for all intents and purposes, be the Ontario Liberal election platform delivered, not by an unpopular leader, but by the lieutenant-governor.
As of Thursday, Ford had not yet named the leaders of his election war room or settled conclusively on a campaign strategy. It’s widely expected that Michael Diamond, 32, who managed his leadership run, will have a senior role if he wants it.
But Kinsella bets that whoever sets the strategy for the pending PC campaign, fighting Wynne on policy details is not necessary and will be avoided. And, perhaps taking a cue from the 2006 campaign of the Stephen Harper Conservatives, the Ford campaign will not need to talk a lot about the scandals of the Liberal incumbents.
“I don’t believe scandal stuff motivates voters. It suppresses votes but it doesn’t bring anybody in because they all think we’re morally compromised anyway,” said Kinsella. “So I don’t think Doug is going to spend a whole lot of time talking about scandals. He’s going to talk about values.”
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