Martin Regg Cohn: The campaigns behind the Ontario 2018 campaign
The Ontario election was supposed to be over before it started.
You know the storyline: On the strength of his irresistible personality, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford vaults to the finish line as the frontrunner, sprinting past dead duck Liberal Kathleen Wynne and outhustling dark horse New Democrat Andrea Horwath.
Not so fast.
Handicapping a horserace — what I call horseracism — only takes you so far if you’re wearing blinkers. Forget the homestretch on an oval track — think of a three-ring circus with three different campaigns competing for our attention.
We got an early taste of the crosscurrents Friday during the campaign’s second debate. Instead of coasting like a frontrunner, Ford emerged like an attack dog pouncing on the underdog Horwath — until both bared their fangs at Wynne, who in turn aimed her wrath right back at them both.
Call it triangulation, where each leader tries to play their rivals off against one another. Consider the competing campaigns:
- The conventional electioneering has everyone ganging up against Wynne, knowing she is saddled with her last five years as premier. Ford and Horwath initially tried to make this election a referendum on an incumbent weighed down by the previous decade of Liberal rule.
- A counterpoint to the anti-Wynne campaign is a gang-up against Ford, whose right-wing populism and pugnacity make him a lightning rod for Liberals and New Democrats. What was supposed to be a comfortable PC march to power has instead turned into a referendum on whether Ford’s brand of disruption is a good fit for Canada’s second-biggest government.
- A new undercurrent is the targeting of the traditionally third-place New Democrats. By bringing them into the fight Friday, Ford has turned the horserace from a cakewalk into a three-way dogfight.
- As they jockey for position, few doubt Ford remains the frontrunner. What remains in doubt is whether he can win a majority government that makes him undisputed premier, or be held to a minority that throws the balance of power into doubt. All of which makes this election as much a fight for second place as a battle for first, pitting Liberals against New Democrats.
Given the negatives attached to both Ford and Wynne, it was only a matter of time before attention turned to Horwath, who typically gets the highest popularity ratings — but also an equally high number of “don’t knows” from Ontarians who haven’t given the NDP much thought until now, let alone voted for it. Horwath argued again Friday that she is the default alternative to the other “two folks fighting about which one will make the worst premier.”
That kind of disenchantment with Tories and Liberals often accounts for last-minute NDP surges in Canadian politics when they have a clear runway. But by attracting attention so early in the campaign, Horwath may start to get more scrutiny than she is accustomed to.
In the first televised debate, held last Monday by CityNews on Toronto issues, Horwath had an easy ride as the other two leaders went at each other, and kept casting herself as above the fray. Not so in Friday’s debate on Northern Ontario — where the NDP holds a number of seats, and Ford tried to eat their lunch.
Few Ontarians would have glimpsed the latest debate — conducted not in a TV studio during primetime, but a Parry Sound meeting hall over the noon hour where mayors from across the north wanted to hear about local issues. But it offered a preview into the strengths and weaknesses of the leaders as they prepare for the all-important debate carried by most networks on May 27.
Ford still doesn’t look comfortable on camera, appearing especially inauthentic when insisting on his love of the people or place he is visiting (“I love northern Ontario ... I care about the people!).” And he seems far from simpatico when harping on “the NDP that has the extremist environmental activists,” with Horwath in the pocket of the “downtown Toronto elites” (he is from Toronto, she isn’t).
By contrast, Wynne has been notably reluctant to reciprocate against Horwath’s attacks on her, careful to avoid antagonizing progressives who might yet return to the Liberal fold. Given the broad similarities in their election promises — from pharmacare to child care — Wynne prefers to stress what they have in common, while Horwath keeps insisting they are dramatically different (in reality, they are far more similar to each other than to the Tories).
Wynne, never a strong debater, keeps fighting over facts and figures as if she were still chairing a cabinet committee as premier, rather than an unpopular politician fighting passionately for her job.
Whether Ford’s attacks hit their mark or detract from the marksman, they have changed the rules of engagement. While Wynne has held her fire, Ford has taken aim early in the campaign, turning it into a far different election — or elections — in its first week.
There are still nearly four weeks still to go — and one more leaders’ debate — before voting day on June 7.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn