The biggest thing a government does in the course of a typical year is bring out a budget. Myriad journalists descend on Queen’s Park to provide ample coverage of the government’s financial plans for the upcoming fiscal year.
Despite all that attention, the Innovative Research Group’s Greg Lyle says less than half of Ontarians will actually be aware of anything that’s in a given budget.
Now take the Patrick Brown story. Lyle was in the field polling this past weekend, and he discovered that a whopping 92 per cent of Ontarians were aware of Brown’s hasty resignation as Progressive Conservative leader amid allegations of sexual misconduct. That’s an astonishingly high level of awareness for a story that’s less than a week old.
But perhaps more surprising: the story seems to have barely had an effect on the popularity of Ontario’s major political parties. Lyle has the Tories at 32 per cent (up from 31), the Liberals at 28 per cent (down from 29), and the NDP at 19 per cent (up four points) among decided voters.
While Brown’s departure doesn’t seem to have changed the overall fortunes of the major parties, it has certainly set off a flurry of backroom activity among Tories seeking the permanent leadership. Today, interim leader Vic Fedeli, MPP for Nipissing, announced he had changed his mind and would not seek the position, as many in caucus had hoped he would. Instead, Fedeli said his sole focus would be “to root out any rot” within the PC Party, and to prepare it to become a true government in waiting.
But back to Lyle’s numbers: perhaps the biggest surprise in the data was the revelation that former MPP Christine Elliott is overwhelmingly the most popular current choice to seek the Tory crown.
Comparing her favourability numbers against her unfavourability numbers, Elliott sits at plus-26 — about twice as good as Fedeli’s and Conservative MP Lisa Raitt’s scores. (Raitt had been floated as a potential leader, though she has already said she won’t be a candidate.) Rookie candidate Caroline Mulroney scores only a plus-9, while another rookie contender, Rod Phillips, scores a mere plus-3.
Conversely, Doug Ford, brother of Toronto’s former mayor, scores a minus-26, confirming his status as an outsider candidate who tends to polarize rather than unify.
It’s known that Elliott is making calls and kicking the tires on running. It’s a bit of an awkward process at the moment, since she currently holds the non-partisan position of Ontario’s patient ombudsman, reporting to the Liberal health minister.
“She’s the best on beating the Liberals,” says Lyle. “The opportunity is huge. She has awareness and affinity. [That leads to] brand loyalty. She scores well on integrity and competence. She can say, ‘I’m this type of person. Does the PC Party want to be this, too?’”
Elliott captured considerable public sympathy nearly four years ago, when she conducted herself with incredible grace after her husband, former federal finance minister Jim Flaherty, suddenly died. She was a popular MPP at Queen’s Park, taking over Flaherty’s provincial seat in Whitby when he moved to the federal arena.
But Elliott is also a two-time loser at previous leadership conventions. In 2009, she attempted to rally the PC Party’s red Tories around her but came third — behind runner-up Frank Klees and eventual winner Tim Hudak. Then, in 2015, she was overwhelmed by Patrick Brown’s superior organizational machine. That contest wasn’t close.
Is the third time the charm? Or will Elliott even be allowed to seek the leadership, given that there is some appetite among those on the party’s executive to limit the race to MPPs and nominated candidates, in hopes of keeping Doug Ford out of the running? If those restrictions are put in place, Elliott could be collateral damage, since she is neither an MPP nor nominated candidate. (The party’s leadership election organizing committee is expected to make a recommendation to the executive about this tomorrow, according to three sources I talked to today who are familiar with the process.)
Lyle has seen his fair share of elections and leadership races in many provinces. A quarter-century ago, he was part of Mike Harris’s original band of common-sense revolutionaries, but he has rebranded himself as a non-partisan pollster and analyst, offering advice to all parties. What he can’t tell us is whether Elliott’s buoyant numbers are firm and foundational or merely what pollsters call “beauty contest” numbers —meaning high name recognition, but with support that’s a mile wide and an inch deep.
Not to mention that the race hasn’t technically begun. Once Mulroney, Phillips, Ford, or others actually start campaigning and signing up new members, the numbers could change dramatically. Just today, another rookie candidate, Pickering–Uxbridge’s Peter Bethlenfalvy, confirmed to me in a phone call that he’s considering a run at the leadership; he wants to bring his wealth of experience in the financial sector to the contest.
Consider where things at Queen’s Park were seven days ago and where they are now. Can anyone imagine where they’ll be a week from now? The story is morphing day by day. Lyle admonishes those who profess to know how it will unfold:
“All bets are off,” he insists.
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- What's next for Ontario's Progressive Conservatives
- The unlikely candidate the Tories should consider
- Tories choose Vic Fedeli to lead them, for now
- The Agenda: Brown fallout and PC election plans
- A whirlwind weekend for Ontario’s Tories
- Tories should ask themselves, why Doug Ford?
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