Money and vote-splitting both favour Doug Ford in Ontario’s June election

There are just over two months to go before Ontario voters head to the polls on June 2 to decide the fate of Premier Doug Ford.

Although Ford and his Progressive Conservatives currently lead in the polls, history teaches us that anything can happen during an election campaign.

In the 2018 election, the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne started the campaign in second place behind the Conservatives, but totally collapsed in the final days and finished a distant third with their worst result ever. In both the 2014 and 2011 elections the Tories started out with strong chances of winning, but ran disastrous campaigns and were overtaken by the Liberals.

Today, Ford is set to enter the formal election period, which starts in early May, with major advantages over the New Democrats and Liberals. These include:

1. Money: Under election finances law, political parties can spend about $9 million each on election advertising during the official campaign period. The Tories already have a huge campaign war chest, having easily raised that amount by mid-2021. They will spend the maximum. Neither opposition party will be able to match them, although the NDP enters the election in the best financial shape in its history. The Liberals trail badly in fundraising, but they still have some money to spend after wiping out their $10-million campaign debt from 2018. Also, many individual Tory candidate will be able to spend the maximum allowed in their ridings. Few opposition candidates have that sort of money.

2. Vote splitting: Ford will benefit mightily from the split on his left, where the NDP and Liberals are battling for progressive votes. A Leger poll earlier this month indicated the Tories are supported by 39 per cent of decided voters with the NDP and Liberals tied with 27 per cent each. Unless the anti-Ford vote coalesces around one of those parties, Ford could easily romp to a second majority victory.

3. Easing of COVID restrictions: Polls taken just two months ago gave Ford some of his worst performance results since the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020, with nearly 60 per cent saying the province was on the wrong track in dealing with the crisis. But Ford’s recent decision to eliminate virtually all vaccine mandates and masking requirements is supported by more than half of those surveyed. With the pandemic fading as a perceived crisis in the minds of many Ontarians, opposition parties may have lost Ford’s handling — or mishandling — of the pandemic as a key campaign issue by the time June 2 rolls around.

4. Incumbency: As the government, the Tories are pumping millions of dollars into “happy talk” taxpayer-funded ads that boast about the economy, their plans to build more highways and how Ontario “is getting stronger.” Also, incumbency and name recognition is a major factor at the riding level. Currently, the Tories expect to field 57 incumbents, compared to 36 for the NDP and six for the Liberals.

5. Economy: With pandemic restrictions easing, the unemployment rate is falling, with Ontario adding 194,000 jobs in February, according to Statistics Canada. Good economic times usually benefit the governing party.

But not all is great for Ford.

He’s strongly disliked by huge swaths of voters, many of whom turned to him in 2018 because of their unhappiness with the Wynne-led Liberals. His handling of the pandemic has also angered many who suffered disproportionately, including nurses, small business owners, restaurant workers and more.

As well, the sudden resignations of Rod Phillips and Christine Elliott, two of Ford’s best ministers who were seen as “the grown-ups” on his team are major losses.

And then there’s always Ford’s tendency to generate controversy with his off-the-cuff remarks and “bully-boy” approach to politics and critics.

Overall, though, Ford has a clear advantage over his opponents right now. But, as we have learned, campaigns do matter.

Bob Hepburn is a Star politics columnist based in Toronto. Twitter: @BobHepburn

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