The Road to Ford Nation

The Road to Ford Nation

It really is Ford Nation now. Despite his high unfavourability ratings, despite a lawsuit from his sister-in-law, despite an uncosted, vague platform, nothing shook Ontario voters from the change they sought.

But why Doug? Why not Andrea Horwarth, who, like the Vegas Golden Knights, outperformed expectations, only to fall short in the final round?

Indeed, Ford, who emerged the winner of a hasty, messy leadership race following Patrick Brown’s even messier ouster last January, was viewed by Ontarians with a jaded eye. Six-in-ten regarded him unfavourably – only slightly better than the two-thirds (66%) who held an adverse opinion of Kathleen Wynne.

Polling in the spring showed Ford to be the most risky choice of leadership candidate next to opponents Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney. But despite all this, Ford’s party was seen as best to form government. One-third of Ontarians said so, compared to just over a quarter (27%) who said the same of the NDP.

The New Democrats briefly captured attention and imagination, leaping from a place of playing potential spoiler among the part of the electorate that leans left-of-centre, to possible government-in-waiting. Horwath’s party was the second choice of more voters than the Liberals or Conservatives; her party had room to grow, while the Conservative base was maxed out.

So what happened? NDP momentum wasn’t enough to assuage older Ontario voters – some of whom were still in therapy over the Bob Rae years. And lingering questions over the depth and commitment of the NDP vote proved astute. While more than half of declared PC voters (60%) said they were “absolutely certain” about the party they would choose, only about one-quarter (27%) of declared NDP voters said the same.

Then there was the love/hate factor. In a campaign largely defined by antipathy and indifference towards the choices on offer, a unique phenomenon emerged: Ontario voters evenly split between a motivation to block a party they dislike from taking over and a motivation to propel a party they really like into power.

Not since the 2016 Trump-Clinton election have we seen such dynamics. Trump ultimately prevailed on the strength of slightly more voters in key states wanting to vote against Clinton, rather than for him. So it may be that Ford – like Trump, the heir of a wealthy family who ran for office as a populist on a paper-thin policy platform – carried the day with the help of those voters who cast their ballots against a progressive government, rather than for his Progressive Conservatives.

In a race this tight, turnout mattered more than ever, and time may show turnout favoured the Conservatives.

With a significant majority mandate, it would appear Doug Ford will have an opportunity to define more clearly what exactly he has in mind for Ontario, beyond buck-a-beer. The mantle is his. It’s now up to Ford and his nation to grapple with the daunting policy challenges facing Ontario. Blaming the Wynne administration will no longer be enough.

If we can declare another winner in this race, it’s Justin Trudeau. His federal Liberals have been dragged down for months by anti-Wynne sentiment, giving Andrew Scheer and Conservative Party of Canada even or better odds in the event a federal election were held today.

With Ford’s victory in Ontario, and given his poor favourability documented throughout the campaign, it could well be Scheer’s party being dragged down by an unpopular premier in Canada’s largest province come October 2019.

For now, the Progressive Conservatives will just be happy to be sharing the joy of victory with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. Meanwhile, the NDP, Liberals and 30 other NHL squads will have to regroup for another season.