In the second edition of Counsel Public Affairs’ 2022 Ontario Election Insights, our team breaks down the narrow, but not nonexistent, path to victory for Steven Del Duca’s Liberal Party.
Read our first election blog on the Ontario Green Party here, and stay tuned for more Insights leading up to June 2nd.
The 2018 provincial election was a well-documented disaster for the Ontario Liberals. The 15-year Liberal electoral juggernaut was reduced to just seven seats – too few to be recognized as an official party in the legislature.
That’s where we find the Ontario Liberals today; battered, bruised, but itching for a comeback. Under the leadership of Steven Del Duca, the Liberals may have a fighting chance at taking back some of their lost ground. But what is their path to rise from the ashes in the coming election? Do they have a chance at outright victory?
In short, yes. It’s a very narrow path, but there is a chance for the Liberals to win if they effectively navigate the twists and turns of this campaign.
STEVEN DEL DUCA
While Del Duca has been leader of the Ontario Liberals for a relatively short time, he is not exactly a fresh face in Ontario politics. He’s been in Liberal circles since he was a teenager, was a staffer for and a protégé of former-Minister and party power, Greg Sorbara, and served as Minister of Transportation and Minister of Economic Development and Growth in the Wynne government. Despite this history, Del Duca’s low profile among voters remains perhaps his biggest shortcoming. They simply don’t know much about him.
One big reason for the lack of profile is unlucky timing. Del Duca was elected leader of the Ontario Liberal Party on March 7, 2020. Ten days later, Ontario declared a COVID-19 emergency and the federal government began closing international borders. For a new leader lacking a seat in the Legislature, the critical opportunity to barnstorm the province for media attention and public connection was consumed for the next two years by the pandemic fires.
It is also fair to say that Del Duca lacks a bit of natural charisma. He has tried to make this a virtue, leaning into this persona and positioning himself as a calm, steady voice of reason – in contrast with the bombast sometimes associated with Premier Ford.
So far, Del Duca is emphasizing a detailed, policy-heavy platform, spotlighting his team – in particular, its plurality of strong female candidates – and often proposing non-partisan, unifying policy, rather than hard contrast. If not particularly flashy, he portrays a sense of stability. He speaks clearly and deliberately, offering measured critiques of the government. Not particularly flashy, but Del Duca is betting that Ontarians are looking for this substance over flash.
Recognizing these profile-raising challenges, the Del Duca Liberals made a conscious decision to release substantive chunks of election policy over the past several weeks. They calculated that they could get more attention from individual, free-standing policy announcements than the release of a comprehensive platform document, which will come later.
The strategy has reaped rewards, with a regular series of headlines and news clips on the latest Liberal commitments. These include:
- A Plan for Economic Dignity that would implement regional minimum wages, starting at $16; provide all Ontario workers with portable drug, dental, and mental health services; build to a four-day work week; and provide 10 paid sick days for all Ontario workers.
- A promise to ban handguns in Ontario within the first year of a Liberal government
- A commitment to “revolutionize” elder care by eliminating for-profit long term care homes and funding home care services for 400,000 more seniors.
- An Equal Pay and Opportunity for Women Plan that will include pay transparency legislation and expansion of the Ontario Fertility Program
- A green program to plant 800 million trees and designate 30% of lands in the province as protected areas by 2030 (versus 10% today), including five new provincial parks.
- An Ontario Liberal Plan to Combat Racism: ending academic streaming in grades 9 and 10, reversing Conservative funding cuts to anti-racism programs, ensuring police training for de-escalation, anti-racism, cultural sensitivity and mental health, and incenting more diverse hiring in police forces.
Of course, election promises provide benchmarks for others to meet or exceed. The NDP have already one-upped a couple of these objectives in their 95-page platform document, released earlier this week. And there will be ongoing debate over the costs of the commitments, with full platform costing promised post-Budget (as is also the case for the other major parties).
Overall, though, Del Duca’s strategy has largely served its purpose; he has been more visible in news and social media over the past two months than the previous two years. With the election looming, that is exactly where he needs to be.
A common view of politics is that parties aren’t elected; governments are defeated. When the electorate is tired of a government or its leader, it votes out that government and, by default, one of the opposition parties becomes the winner. Many would say this is what happened in 2018. The Ontario electorate was clearly tired of the Ontario Liberals and Premier Wynne and punished Liberal candidates mercilessly.
Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned a mere four years into an entirely new era. If ever there was a time it might be expected that voters could tire of a government after just one term, this could be it. So, is the Ontario electorate viewing this election as a “change election”?
Time will tell. For now, the polls are mixed. Top-line numbers show Ontarians are generally satisfied with Premier Ford and his government. Ipsos is reporting 52% of Ontarians approve of the performance of the PC’s, but within this only 12% are “strongly supportive” and 39% are “somewhat supportive” – hardly enthusiastic and resounding support. At the same time, other polls done by the Angus Reid Institute show considerable dissatisfaction with Ford’s handling of specific key files like healthcare, education, housing affordability, poverty and homelessness, care of seniors, etc.
In polling done in March, 86% of Ontarians believe the Ford government is doing a bad job on housing affordability (which is emerging as the number one issue in people’s minds); 78% feel their handling of poverty and homelessness is inadequate; 70% are critical of their handling of health care. These must be troubling numbers for Ford and offer a glimmer of opportunity to the opposition parties.
Perhaps the greatest vulnerability of the Ford government in its handling of the pandemic is how the long-term care system was dealt with. The inadequacies of the long-term care system were laid bare for all to see as seniors tragically suffered and died during the pandemic. If a society is measured by how we treat our elders, our society did not fare well.
Yet even here, it is difficult for the Liberals to land the political punch. As Premier Ford and his caucus mention at nearly every opportunity, in fifteen years of Liberal government, Steven Del Duca and his colleagues built only 600 new long-term care beds. The PCs are claiming that they were handed a broken, underfunded long-term care system, were forced to make the best of it in a crisis, and now are on track with over 30,000 new long-term care beds in planning or construction.
A second vulnerability for Ford hearkens back to his first eighteen months in office which were undeniably tumultuous. Too often, major policy change seemed to be haphazard or vindictive – slashing the size of Toronto City Council, short-changing parents of children with autism, launching losing court battles with the federal government, reversing course on multiple policies. Are these days in the rearview mirror, or can Ontarians be reminded again of those days when Ford’s popularity plummeted?
The onset of COVID forced Ford and his team to have a focus – to protect Ontarians, and repair some of the damage done. For the most part, polls show that Ontarians have appreciated PC leadership during the crisis – even if they quibbled with particular aspects to how it was handled. He has received the benefit of the doubt from a lot of voters.
Of course, it’s not just the Liberals who are fighting to become the alternative to the PCs. The NDP are the Official Opposition, have 40 seats in the Ontario legislature and have an experienced leader – Andrea Horwath – making the same argument that they are a viable alternative to the government.
If the Liberals and NDP can together remind voters of the early days of the Ford government and make Ford’s vulnerabilities the centerpiece of their campaign, then perhaps Del Duca and Horwath can together make this election a “change election.” If voters decide that a change is needed, then the question becomes which of the two options – Liberal or NDP – is best positioned to affect this change. So far, the polls are showing the Liberals are inching ahead in this race to be the alternative. If this gap widens and more NDP voters can be convinced to vote Liberal to block the PCs, then a Liberal victory is possible. But that’s the essence of the challenge – convince voters that change is needed and then convince those voters that you best represent the change they want. That’s a tall task for any campaign, let alone a campaign that is only a month long.
So, it’s a narrow path to victory, but there is a path.
Going into every campaign, the Ontario Liberals typically have three major advantages over the other parties: The Liberal brand, a technology/organization advantage and a gender gap.
The Liberal brand – and especially the federal Liberal brand – is arguably the strongest political brand in the western world. While the federal Liberal party and the provincial party are totally separate entities, many voters equate the two, and Ontario Liberals have benefited from that association. For many, that brand equates to managerial competence, accommodation of newcomers, and national unity – they are the “natural governing party.”
But do those brand characteristics still hold true against Doug Ford and the PCs? As noted above, Ford has received mixed reviews on his handling of COVID and other key files, but those polls aren’t showing high levels of dissatisfaction either. Ford and his Cabinet are generally seen as competent managers and Ford himself leans into his business experience and “get it done” attitude in speeches and advertising.
With respect to accommodation of newcomers, Ford is personally popular in many visible minority communities, particularly in the GTA and inner suburbs like Scarborough and Etobicoke. It is worth noting that a great predictor of electoral success is how parties fare in the visible minority communities of the ‘905. When Stephen Harper won his federal majority, he polled greater than 50% support in these visible minority communities. Same with Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne’s majority governments. Ford won this vote in 2018 and he’s looking to secure it again in 2022. Del Duca and his team are working hard to tap into the same pools.
On national unity, Ford’s very public and very shrewd partnership with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland during the height of the pandemic and his cooperation with Trudeau on childcare and automotive investment shows that Ford can work with his federal counterparts and be a player on the national stage. These moves all chip away at this Liberal brand advantage.
The second advantage the Liberals have consistently enjoyed over the past decade is a considerable edge in technology and organization. They were able to attract more volunteers and those volunteers were calling lists and knocking on doors using better, more sophisticated information and tracking tools. This “ground game” advantage helps deliver votes on election day and allows for more targeted communication to voters throughout the campaign. In contrast, the PCs – who used to enjoy a technology advantage in the ‘90s and 2000’s – have fallen behind and were stuck using inadequate tools and out-of-date data to connect with their voters.
Since 2018, however, the PCs have used their considerable fundraising advantage (to the victor go the spoils!) to modernize their technology and close the gap. Having only seven seats and lacking party status, the Liberals will have fewer central resources to draw on and weaker riding-level capacity for fundraising and volunteer recruitment than when their seat base was much larger. Worse still for the Liberals, reports are that they are still searching for up to 20 candidates to run on their slate. If, however, the Ontario Liberals can tap into the organization “ground game” of their federal Liberal cousins, they have access to a formidable army of volunteers to help deliver votes one doorstep at a time.
The third major advantage the Liberals typically enjoy is a gender gap, with greater support among women than the PCs. According to EKOS Research Associates, in 2020 at the federal level, if only men voted, the Liberals and Conservatives would be in a statistical tie. If only women voted, the Liberals would double the vote of Conservatives. Of course, this is a poll done at the national level, but the same general trend normally applies in Ontario. In this race, however, the dynamic seems to be a bit different. According to an Ipsos poll published April 21st, the Tories are enjoying a surprising but modest lead among women, with 35% support, compared to 30% for the Liberals and 26% for the NDP. (Keep in mind, of course, that the NDP are the only party with a female leader.)
As a strategy to restore this gender gap advantage, the Ontario Liberals have made a commitment to gender parity a central component of their branding. Going into the process of recruiting and nominating candidates, the Ontario Liberals designated more than 20 ridings across Ontario as women-only candidate ridings. A few weeks ago, the Liberal’s passed the 50% threshold of women nominated to be candidates in the coming campaign. We can expect Del Duca to feature many of these women in party advertising and events, promoting the strength of his team.
So, on all three of these assets – Liberal brand, technology/organization and gender gap – the Liberals have some work to do and the PCs may have at least caught up. There are now less than six weeks to see how it all plays out.
WILL WE SEE A LIBERAL GOVERNMENT ON JUNE 2nd?
Just 40 days out from E-Day, Steven Del Duca and his team of candidates remain unknown quantities to many Ontarians. But campaigns matter and the team that Del Duca has assembled is savvy and skilled. The advantage of low expectations is that it is easy to exceed them. If Del Duca performs up to the level that some think he can, he will turn heads and may close the gap.
The Liberals have the necessary parts in place to form a serious challenge to the incumbent PCs – a sound platform, credible candidates, a strong team around the leader, and of course, the Liberal brand in Ontario. As voters increasingly turn their focus to the campaign, the polls show some positive movement in favour of the Liberals. The most recent set of polls show the PC lead shrinking to between 4 and 5 per cent – within striking distance. A long way to go, of course, and polls will bounce around over the next few weeks, but the trends are positive for the Liberals.
The big unknown is how the public will rate Del Duca’s in head-to-head comparison. Will voters judge he has the “royal jelly” they are seeking?
Ford still ranks well above Del Duca or Horwath in most ratings of “who would make the best Premier.” Never a fair comparison for opposition leaders, it has been even more challenging than normal over the past two years of news domination by COVID-19 and the government’s responses to it. Still, that is the reality Steven Del Duca and his team must deal with. Their belief is that when the lights go on in a few days, when Del Duca is given his fair share of attention, when he strides the same debate stage and handles the same kind of media scrums as Doug Ford, his strengths will speak for themselves.
We’ll decline to offer a definitive prediction of what will happen June 2nd, except to say that this election will be a hard-fought, competitive one, and we expect some surprises from Steven Del Duca. It should be fun to watch!
Senior Vice President