The 2018 Ontario election campaign began last week with what many consider a “gotcha” question by a member of the media to Doug Ford. By now, we all know that Ford was asked if he knew how a bill became a law on day one. Many pundits considered his non-answer proof that he didn’t know the process and therefore evidence that he was not ready to be premier.
Since then, the media and Ford’s opponents have tried to cast this and other comments (such as protecting jobs for Ontarians in northern Ontario and the niceness of Premier Wynne’s smile) as gaffes.
For the most part, I don’t take issue with these questions or with reporting on so-called campaign missteps. It’s part of the scrutiny that politicians need to endure when they’re vying for higher levels of office. The question is whether these gaffes and gotcha moments matter to the average voter in a campaign.
This week’s Ipsos/Global poll would suggest the answer is a clear no.
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Just shy of one week into the election, the Progressive Conservative Party remains solid at 40 per cent. The percentage of voters who believe that Ford is the best choice to be premier is also essentially unchanged, sitting at 36 per cent. And Ford’s support continues to be the most solid and committed of the three main parties.
In Ford’s case, not only do his comments not appear to matter to voters, one could argue that they actually reinforce some of the character traits that “folks” find so appealing about him.
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For many, Ford’s unvarnished, plain language is charming and refreshing. His somewhat awkward cadence and casual tone is definitely a change from the almost bureaucratic approach of the current premier.
No matter how excited campaign strategists get when an overly rehearsed zinger lands well during a leaders’ debate or in a speech, they are often dismissed by voters for being phony. Most of us don’t speak in pithy sound bites or quote statistics ad nauseam as we chat over the water cooler about our long wait in the emergency department or complain to our neighbours about the cost of our hydro bills. Our language and tone is full of emotion and conviction. And sometimes we trip up on our words or make mistakes. So too is the case with Doug Ford. In short, he seems authentic.
Nonetheless, in campaigns, unscripted or off-message comments can ultimately matter if they prevent you from getting your daily message out to voters. If all that voters see, read and hear is the gaffe, then mistakes can be sufficient enough to make a difference in voter perception and preference.
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But this was not the case with the Ford campaign during week one. Ford clearly drove a strong policy message in each of the first few days of the writ, including his middle-class tax cut, education reform, support for seniors and a massive commitment to transit.
Overall, Ford’s performance in the first week of the campaign reinforced existing perceptions about who he is as a leader and gave voters a chance to see what he wants to do as premier. Week one is just ending, but so far, people like what they see in Doug Ford.
Deb Hutton was a senior advisor to former Ontario premier Mike Harris.
Deb Hutton joins Omar Khan and Tom Parkin on Global News’ regular political panel, appearing on Global Toronto and AM 640 Corus radio throughout the campaign and as part of our election night coverage.