Doug Ford’s political record is pretty uninspiring if you take a cold-eyed look at it: he inherited his late brother Rob’s Toronto city council seat; he then lost his short mayoral campaign, which he ran only because a cancer diagnosis took Rob out of the race; and he won the Progressive Conservative leadership race due to the way the party allocates points — not, you know, by getting the most living, breathing humans to vote for him.
Add to all that the fact that Ford’s biggest success to date — that leadership victory — came after a contest in which candidates pulled their punches so as not to wound a potential party leader just a few months before an election, and it becomes clear that Doug Ford has not been truly tested in the political arena.
That changes today.
The Liberals begin their pre-election ad campaign Monday, and not one advertising dollar will be spent telling voters about Premier Kathleen Wynne — not until the writ is drawn sometime in May. For now, it’s all Doug, all the time. And all of it is negative.
There are two elements to the Liberal strategy: the first is introducing voters to some of Doug Ford’s more infamous historical utterances — his contention, for example, that children with autism shouldn’t be allowed outside in bucolic Etobicoke neighbourhoods. That statement was bandied about in Toronto’s 2014 mayoral election, but none of Ford’s PC rivals tried to make it an issue during the recent leadership contest. The Liberals are about to put it on blast across multiple major radio and television networks.
But the Liberals aren’t betting the farm on a “Doug the Deplorable” strategy. The parallels between the upcoming Ontario vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential election have not been lost on senior Liberal insiders, who believe Hillary Clinton came up short two years ago partly because of her campaign’s overemphasis on “Donald Trump is a bad person.” According to this theory, the Democrats failed to convince voters that Trump would be bad for them, and they lost crucial votes in crucial states because of it.
So the second part of the Liberals’ strategy is to make sure voters know that Doug Ford is opposed to the government’s most popular policies — the minimum-wage hike, rent control, child care, OHIP+, and more.
“It’s really Doug Ford in his own words. It’s all about showing people who the real Doug Ford is,” says campaign co-chair Deb Matthews. “This is a campaign, and campaigns matter, and we think it’s really important that when people make a choice — and it’s the starkest choice they’ve had to make, provincially, for a long time — they have the full facts about who Doug Ford really is.”
There are at least a few different ways in which the Liberals could be wrong about what provincial voters are thinking — and about how effective their ads will be.
People could decide that, no matter what, Ford is preferable to Wynne, and nothing the Liberals can dredge up will change their minds. In fact, it’s possible that what the Liberals dredge up will not even be news to voters: Ford has been a prominent municipal councillor and a mayoral candidate in the province’s largest city — his record is already very public indeed. The Liberals say their early research shows median voters recoiling in horror when they learn about some of the more controversial statements Ford has made, but early research is hardly conclusive.
It’s also possible that the Liberals could damage Ford’s campaign in the opinion polls without actually benefiting: voters could be repelled by both Wynne and Ford and park their votes with the NDP. Or they could simply stay home.
One interesting wrinkle in all this is that Matthews’s fellow Liberal campaign co-chair, David Herle, has acknowledged on his political podcast that he’s not sure what kind of attacks will work against Ford, and that the Tory leader competes for Liberal voters in places Team Red has long thought of as safe.
But a poll from Innovative Research Group released Monday shows that the Tories are still about 20 points ahead of the Liberals and the New Democrats. Multiple recent polls have shown the PCs with similarly substantial leads, and the Liberals bluntly acknowledged on Friday how far back they are. Now they will test how durable Ford’s support really is.
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