Doug Ford’s journey to win the Ontario election and secure a second straight majority really began on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, the day he declared a state of emergency amid the COVID-19 pandemic .
Until then, Ford’s Progressive Conservative government smacks of a one-term prodigy, mired in nepotism scandals and so unpopular the prime minister was booed at the Raptors’ victory parade of Toronto, otherwise cheerful.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic: 13,000 people died, Ontario closed schools longer than anywhere in North America, and Ford’s promised “iron ring” around nursing homes in long term never materialized.
Still, Ford led his Ontario PCs to a bigger victory than in the last election, with 83 seats, leaving the New Democrats and Liberals in the dust and in search of new party leaders.
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How did he and his party pull off this astonishing recovery?
A key factor was the image Ford cultivated in more than 200 press conferences during the first year of the pandemic.
Whatever you think of the way he reads from a teleprompter or his “God bless the people of Ontario,” Ford used those appearances to rehabilitate his reputation and, therefore, his approval rating. soared.
There’s no question that his government’s response to the pandemic was flawed, and that ultimately resulted in Ford’s endorsement. There were plenty of voters who wanted Ford out.
But there is no doubt that a significant portion of Ontarians are fed up with the pandemic and want to move on. Ford’s party capitalized on that, and its “Get It Done” message likely resonated with those who are “done” with COVID-19.
Election a referendum on Ford
Between those two COVID-related factors, here’s how it worked: Enough audiences in enough ridings gave Ford a passing grade to pave the way for an election victory.
The election was in many ways a referendum on Ford. Polls show few in Ontario are neutral about him after four years as premier and so much time in the pandemic spotlight.
The stability of poll results throughout the campaign and Thursday night’s election result suggest that these polarized views of Ford were entrenched. There seemed to be little the opposition parties could say or do to persuade people who were already on Ford’s side to turn against him.
For evidence of Ford’s ability to bring non-traditionally conservative voters into the PC’s fold, look at where his party won seats.
Places that reliably vote Liberal federally, such as Mississauga, Vaughan and Scarborough, have stayed with the Conservatives. Clearly, a significant number of voters who voted for Ford’s party this time also voted for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals last September.
Even more remarkable — and something that should worry the NDP and its next leader — was the success of the PC’s speech to workers. The party was successful in winning ridings such as Windsor-Tecumseh and Essex in the heartland of the auto sector, Hamilton East-Stoney Creek in Steeltown, Ontario, and Timmins, a major mining centre.
The idea that Doug Ford’s Tories are on the side of the workers has to be one of the most magical political alchemies Ontario has ever had. This is the same party that, months after forming government, repealed a law giving workers the right to two paid sick days, froze the minimum wage and made it harder to join a union.
Halfway through their tenure, the PCs realized that treating employees this way risked exposing the “For the People” slogan Ford floated last time around as empty words.
Ford’s electoral problem became apparent. Government sources tell me Labor Secretary Monte McNaughton sold the cabinet during the shift and party strategists began trying to cultivate pro-worker perception last fall. As a PC campaign source told me at the time, there are more employees voting than business owners voting.
Ford’s promise to build Highway 413 brought enough construction unions to its side that PCs were able to leverage that symbolism to create additional seats. It also clearly helped in Brampton, where they snatched three new seats from the New Democrats.
Voters rejected Horwath, Del Duca for prime minister
In the referendum choice between Doug Ford and non-Doug Ford, voters considered the two main alternatives: Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Many more people decided that Ford would be a better premier than either. Their back-to-back resignations underscored how resounding the CP’s victory was.
Horwath’s tearful speech on election night was perhaps the best she had given in 13 years as party leader, speaking directly from the heart. New Democrats had told me for the past few days that Horwath’s time was up and she knew it.
Although Del Duca didn’t shed a tear in his speech, appearing numb from the dismal outcome, he couldn’t feel less pain than Horwath, having led his political team to one of the worst defeats in its history.
Green Party leader Mike Schreiner admitted early in the campaign that he would not become prime minister. A comment often heard by voters during the campaign, and especially after Schreiner’s performance in the debate, was that the other parties would have had a much better chance of winning had he been their leader.
The result shows that the flagship campaign strategy of the Play-it-safe campaign employed by the Ontario PC Party worked. As frustrating as it is to reporters that Ford goes days without answering questions, it doesn’t matter to the more than 1.9 million Ontarians who voted PC.
Ford grew in his ability to stay on message, mostly by not answering questions that reporters posed to him. Previously, his combative instincts drove him to take the bait more often, and his communications aides would nervously watch his press conferences wondering what might be coming out of his mouth.
Newly re-elected Ford spoke to reporters on Friday but offered very little new information. He wouldn’t say when Ontarians can expect a Cabinet announcement, he wouldn’t say if he would commit to issuing new mandate letters, and he wouldn’t say if he would convene the Legislative Assembly for a summer session.
“I will wake up every day and go to work for all Ontarians, whether you are a lifelong supporter, voted PC for the first time, or voted for any other party.” he declared.
WATCH | Doug Ford’s victory speech:
The big question will be what Ford will do over the next four years with this even larger mandate. Will he take it as a license to return to the raised elbows style of his first year in power? Or will he hear Horwath’s message in his speech: “Respecting voters means listening everything what they tell us.”
It is rare for a prime minister who forms a majority in his first election victory to then obtain an even greater majority in the second election. The Dalton McGuinty Liberals did not. Mike Harris PCs did not.
In fact, an analysis of the records shows that only one premier in Ontario has done so in the last century. Leslie Frost’s PCs won five more seats in 1955 than in 1951, but even that gets an asterisk: the size of the legislature grew by eight seats between elections.
According to the historical electoral trends in this province, a defeat of the CP would in fact have been an anomaly. In the last century, Ontario voters have sent a government only once after a single term: it was Bob Rae’s NDP in 1995.
It turns out that Doug Ford isn’t a one-term wonder, and he’s anything but Bob Rae.