What Federal Conservatives Can Learn From Doug Ford’s Big Ontario Win
Federal Conservatives could learn from how Doug Ford led the Progressive Conservatives to re-election in Ontario last week, but they may not be able to replicate his playbook, election analysts say.
“I think there are lessons, especially in the [Greater Toronto Area] federal Conservatives learn,” said Duane Bratt, professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“After all, Ford won a huge amount of seats in Toronto and the GTA, which the federal Conservatives have been unable to do in several election cycles.”
The federal Conservatives are in the midst of a leadership campaign and will appoint a new leader in Ottawa on September 10.
The party continues to perform well in rural Ontario. But since Justin Trudeau became prime minister, he has been largely shut out of vote-rich Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area – a politically coveted ring of surrounding suburban communities, also known as the 905 area for its area code, which includes cities such as Brampton and Mississauga.
Still, on Thursday night, Ford’s PCs swept the GTA, with a strong showing in Toronto as well. The contest includes former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, MPs Scott Aitchison and Leslyn Lewis and Ontario MPP Roman Baber.
Bratt suggested that this path to electoral success does not involve pursuing an ideological campaign.
“The federal Conservatives don’t need to win Alberta. They need to win Ontario. And so I think the playbook to look at is Doug Ford and being a pragmatic leader,” he said.
“That’s the challenge we see in the federal campaign where Charest and Brown talk about broadening the Conservative base and Pierre Poilievre just focuses on that base.
“And then how do you do that pivot? Ford made that pivot.”
Michael Diamond, who has worked on Ford’s leadership campaign as well as federal Conservative general election campaigns, said there was a “huge lesson” for conservative leadership candidates from Ford’s victory over “growth beyond your historical limits”.
“Turning enemies into friends without turning friends into enemies, that’s what Doug Ford did,” Diamond told The Canadian Press. “By reaching out, making inroads and engaging in dialogue, Ford has brought a new demographic into the party.”
Diamond said the Progressive Conservative premier’s call for the labor movement and his endorsement by the unions have made crucial inroads into the NDP’s traditional labor base. It’s a strategy leadership candidates could adopt to build support for conservatives at the federal level, he said.
But Jamie Ellerton, public relations strategist at Conaptus, which also manages MP Scott Aitchison’s federal leadership campaign, suggested that comparisons to a general election and an in-party race are not so straightforward.
It’s a a greater challenge for federal politicians to have a vision that will speak to each region of the country uniquely according to their circumstances, while at the same time providing a comprehensive view of what Canada can be, a- he declared.
And when it comes to a leadership contest, “at the end of the day, you’re talking to a different kind of group of people” – a very small percentage of the population who actually belong to a political party, a he declared.
Still, Diamond suggested there were takeaways from Ford’s campaign, including its ability to reach beyond traditional supporters.
“I think one of the things you’ve seen Doug Ford do successfully over the last four years for his re-election campaign has been to speak to a broader subset of the population that goes beyond voters. traditional conservatives. [and] brought them home“, he said.
Ellerton said Ford constantly speaks “across the aisle” over the heads of his political rivals to speak directly to voters.
“I think if you look at how that translates into federal politics, I think there are lessons to be learned from what that approach has done,” he said. “I think that’s very much a model of how the Conservative Party of Canada could be successful.”
Not enough to yell at Trudeau
Ellerton said the federal Conservatives need to present a more positive message about what they can deliver to voters, like Ford did during his campaign, projecting confidence, while focusing on what the Conservatives will do to ensure that the government is working for Ontarians.
“I think Conservatives need to provide a positive iteration of what conservatism can do for the country and how it’s going to improve the lives of all Canadians,” he said. “It can’t be the party that just yells at Justin Trudeau and constantly wants to denigrate the Prime Minister.”
But Kate Harrison, vice president of public affairs firm Summa Strategies, cautioned against learning too many lessons from Ford’s election campaign and Thursday’s victory.
Ford faced particularly weak opposition, she said, and an apathetic electorate. Less than half of eligible voters voted.
She said she disagreed with the idea that federal conservatives need to start behaving and acting like Ford when it comes to his “small-P populist, not ideologically conservative approach.”
“I’m not sure that’s necessarily something that’s needed to win the country,” she said. “I think you can do a pretty good job of contrasting the country’s key perspectives and visions against your opposition under a partisan banner and still succeed.”
Harrison suggested that a leader’s authenticity may be key. That’s one of the problems with former federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, who has been accused of coming across as more of a moderate during the election than when he ran for leadership, a she declared.
No one will question that the ideas advanced by Poilievre, considered the frontrunner in the leadership race, are rooted in a core conservative ideology, Harrison said.
“Are voters in turn going to reward that because they don’t think there’s necessarily a hidden agenda there?” she asked.
“Doug Ford – the authenticity factor is very high. He’s generally seen as quite accessible, folksy, et cetera,” she said.
“Rarely [Poilievre] been kind of caught by someone accusing him of not saying or doing something different than what he actually believes. How much do voters value this authenticity over the actual policies that are in the mix?”
Ford’s folksy approach that appeals to many voters could also be hard to replicate for federal Conservative leadership candidates, analysts say.
“Looking particularly at Pierre Poilievre]he takes a radically different approach to a Doug Ford,” Bratt said.
“I don’t know if they can copy Ford. I mean, there’s a certain ‘ordinary person out there’ that Jean Charest and Patrick Brown don’t have either.”