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OPINION: Why Doug Ford looks a lot like Olivia Chow

Tue 22nd May 2018 Add comment
There is a common saying among political pundits and consultants that “campaigns matter”. This truism is appearing to present itself in the ongoing Ontario provincial election the same way it unfolded during the 2014 Toronto mayoral election.

What do we mean by this? Doug Ford may be suffering from front-runner syndrome and he may not even know it.

It is important to note that the following is not a political prediction. The following article is an electoral comparison of two candidates who, at the moment, appear to be experiencing the same fate as one another but on different levels of government. This article explores a potential hypothesis that Olivia Chow’s journey through the court of public opinion shares a number of similarities with Doug Ford’s current electoral performance and where it may be headed.  However, the probability of Doug Ford and the PCs finishing third - as Chow did in the Toronto mayoral race - at the moment looks unlikely.

In the lead-up to the 2014 Toronto mayoral election there was a great deal of media attention on whether Trinity-Spadina MP Olivia Chow would run for mayor of Toronto to replace the controversial Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Both Olivia Chow and Doug Ford had head-and-shoulder leads over multiple opponents in the lead up to the official election date and in the early stages of the official campaign.

Well before her campaign was officially announced, a Forum Research poll in March 2013 had Olivia Chow at 60% support in a hypothetical match-up against then Mayor Rob Ford. Olivia Chow continued to lead in the horserace until July of 2014 – roughly four months before Election Day on October 12th. After July, Olivia Chow lost the initiative and never lead the pack again. Her campaign was forced into a position of always having to respond to their opponents, John Tory and Rob Ford (and Doug Ford after Rob withdrew from the campaign due to illness, and Doug took his place).

The Tories are following a very similar path: I have collected and archived roughly 100 polls that were published since the 2014 June election. Of the 100 that have been published, the Liberals have lead the pack a total of ten times with December 2017 being the most recent time the Liberals were in the lead. In that same time period the NDP have only lead twice during the summer of 2015. The rest of that time has shown the PCs with some sort of lead – sometimes as high as 50% of the vote.

Doug Ford’s summer slump may be fast approaching, however. There have been four polls in the month of May by Pollara, Forum Research, Ipsos Reid, and ONPulse (Abacus Data) that show the NDP with 30% of the vote or more. Furthermore, the firms with polls showing the NDP with a smaller share of the vote are still showing moderate gains for the NDP. As of May 22nd an Ipsos Reid poll found the NDP and the PCs in a virtual tie. Doug Ford and the PCs are now in a position where they have to respond to NDP initiatives – the same way Olivia Chow had to respond to John Tory’s initiatives.
There are any number of reasons why Olivia Chow fell out of favour with Toronto voters. John Laschinger, the campaign manager to the Chow campaign, noted in his book Campaign Confessions: Tales from the War Rooms of Politics that Olivia Chow’s support declined for two primary reasons. The first was that expectation of Olivia Chow were set artificially high by the Toronto media. As the campaign progressed voters realized they didn’t really know Olivia Chow like they knew Rob Ford or John Tory. Laschinger noted that Chow's polling numbers were largely fueled by her high name recognition and not by her prior accomplishments. This was unfortunate for the Chow campaign because Chow had been active in Canadian politics for nearly 30 years. As time went on, Laschinger noted that Chow was not meeting the high expectations set for her in the polls and in the news media.

This may be happening to Doug Ford as he campaigns across Ontario. Many people, certainly in the 416 area, can point to Doug Ford’s time in business and brief stint in municipal politics. However, they are not able to provide details about his claims of finding efficiencies in government. Ford is largely relyingon anger towards the incumbent Liberals as the fuel for his appeal. His relative inexperience may prove to be a hindrance as the probability of committing errors or mistakes are more likely. If Doug Ford is able to campaign in the later half of the election with discipline and clarity he may be able to exceed expectations but at the moment it appears he may be getting outmaneuvered by both the Liberals and NDP on substance and depth of policy positions.

The second reason that Olivia Chow fell out of favour among the Toronto electorate is that she was the punching bag for many Toronto-416 progressive voters who wanted to punish the NDP for two mistakes: it’s decision to bring down the provincial government and force an election as well as campaigning on issues that did not resonate with voters personally when the campaign was underway. At this time it is difficult to see how the electorate would be punishing Ford and the PCs for something as specific as causing an election. However, there are more non-Ford supporters in Ontario than there are Ford-supporters meaning that the electorate may be able to register their dislike (punishment) of Ford more effectively as they coalesce around the NDP.

It is believed that Olivia Chow experienced such high levels of support in the earlier days of the election because Rob Ford was an unpopular incumbent and the competition was not as defined as it was in the summer of 2014. The same could be said for the PCs under former leader Patrick Brown, interim leader Vic Fedeli or Doug Ford. Ford inherited a party that was already seen at that time as the best possible alternative to Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. He was able to ride that wave with moderate strength until recently.

The same can be found in Ontario: the Tories enjoyed popularity because they represented a stark difference compared with the unpopular Liberal government. NDP leader Andrea Horwath experienced a net-positive favourability ratings for many months but had low levels of awareness in comparison to Wynne or (believe it or not) Patrick Brown. Today we are seeing the possibility of voters beginning to opt for the NDP in the same way that voters opted for John Tory as the replacement to Mayor Rob Ford.
In the commentariat we saw some political contributors who were bullish on Olivia Chow’s probability of becoming Toronto’s next mayor. Similar types of articles have been written by journalists today about Doug Ford’s probability of changing the drapes in the Premier’s Office.

Every election is winnable and losable and I am of the personal believe it is unwise to name a particular candidate is a politician-in-waiting. In the past few days alone we’ve seen the Tories losing their long-time lead in the polls. Some argue it’s a mid-campaign blip, which is might be. Only time will tell how this ends up.

As noted above, Olivia Chow lost because more moderate progressives opted for John Tory to defeat Doug Ford. If moderate progressives abandon the Liberals and vote NDP in large droves, Doug Ford may lose as a result of getting outnumbered as a result of the NDP’s plurality. Having said that, however, if defections between the Liberals and NDP are moderate and do not favour either party – there may be enough ridings that the Tories can win, coming through the middle as a result of vote splitting. 

To summarize:

Olivia Chow went from strong front runner in the beginning of the election against an unpopular incumbent, failed to meet the expectations that were set for her, lost support as the campaign went on and never recovered from third place after July.

Doug Ford went from strong front runner in the beginning of the election against an unpopular incumbent, has a greater probability today of failing to meet the expectations that were set for him by members of the Queen's Park press gallery just weeks ago, is (appearing) to lose support as the campaign goes on and may lose his spot as the preferred alternative.