Ontario Election 2018 #2 The PC's Path to Victory

Is your organization prepared for the 2018 Ontario election? How could each party impact your success or complicate your future? HOWE&WYE is offering pre-election briefings and strategy development sessions to ensure your organization isn’t caught flat-footed going into the June election.

In spite of poor polling results of the Liberals of late, there is substantial time before the election to start building populous support for the Liberals. They have the luxury of government announcements (e.g. Minimum Wage, resources and an experienced leader on their side. They also have a long history of poorly executed public policy, a public bribery scandal that has embroiled the premier herself, and a legacy of spending disasters and political outrage.

So how do the Ontario PC’s or NDP take advantage of public sentiment to turn the tide in Ontario? The electorate would seem very ready for change in Ontario and HOWE&WYE is here to deliver our pre-election briefings for you and your organization to ensure you are equally prepared for each potential outcome.  

Our team of political veterans and experts have developed an overview presentation that we can provide to clients or others interested in a briefing on the path to victory for each party.   

The PC’s Path to Victory


The path to victory for Patrick Brown and the Ontario PC’s is relatively straight. They just have to avoid making mistakes and avoid shooting themselves in the foot.  There’s an old adage that elections aren’t won – they are lost and the Liberals are well on their way to losing.  Just get out of the way and let it happen … at least that’s the plan, but it’s also not the full story. 

Electorally, the Ontario PCs have a virtual lock on rural Ontario, with the exception of ridings in the far north, where the NDP are strong.  But to win, the Ontario PC’s need to break through in the suburbs of the GTA, in the ridings surrounding the larger cities of Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, and take a few of the smaller-city ridings like Niagara Falls, Brantford, Guelph, and Peterborough.  

A few seats in “the ‘416” (likely in Scarborough and Etobicoke) would also be needed for a majority.  Sounds straightforward, right?  Yes, except in all these places where the Tories need to win, the population demographic found there is not a traditional PC voter. These ridings tend to be younger (especially in university towns like Guelph), they tend to be more blue-collar and maybe even unionized, such as in Brantford or St. Catharines, and they are certainly skewing to higher proportions of visible minority.  

Until the late 1990’s, the ‘905 area around Toronto was a typical North American suburb.  Quite a bit wealthier than the core of Toronto and populated with long-established, mostly white middle-class suburbanites. In 1995 and ’99, the Mike Harris led conservatives nearly swept the ‘905 ridings by appealing directly to these voters.    

In 2003, most of these ridings went Liberal.  At the time, Liberal operatives indicated that their analysis showed these ridings had flipped from majority white neighbourhoods to greater than 50% (in some ridings approaching 70%) visible minority.  These ridings were becoming much more densely populated and the issues they faced were more urban. These were big cities and the Tories were still treating them like bedroom communities.  The Liberals were recruiting candidates from these diasporas and they put considerable effort into multi-cultural community outreach.  The Ontario Tories were still talking about agriculture and policies to keep property taxes low, while the Ontario Liberals were talking about transit investments and greenbelts. 

The fact is Ontario’s population growth – and where most of the seats are found - is concentrated in the GTA and in traditional Liberal strong-holds. The Liberals have a chance of winning if they are able to hold seats in a corridor that stretches 10 to 15km on either side of Yonge Street from Lake Ontario to Highway 401 and along the 401 from Durham to Halton.  That “T” is the battleground and that “T” is where most of Ontario’s population growth is concentrated. Growth in those communities is coming from visible minority populations that are skewing younger. The PC’s have to overcome their historical failures to appeal to younger voters and visible minorities to win these seats. 

Brown understands this challenge and he realizes that the path to victory is going to come from support in Ontario’s growing multi-cultural, multi-ethnic diaspora, especially in the GTA.  

In the 2007 election, new leader John Tory made a concerted effort to reach out to these communities and did make some headway, but he never gained the traction he hoped for and lost that campaign badly. Tim Hudak made similar entreaties to these communities and in the 2014 campaign, he spent more than 50% of his time campaigning in the GTA, all to no avail. 

During his leadership campaign, Brown focused much of his effort on these communities and was able to sell thousands of new memberships in the south-Asian, Chinese, Filipino, Caribbean, Latin American and Eastern European communities found across Ontario.  Since the leadership, Brown has continued to cultivate these relationships and spends most weekend and many weeknight evenings at “cultural” events across the GTA.  He doesn’t receive a lot of publicity for these appearances – at least in mainstream media - but his persistent work is paying off with large crowds and fundraising success.  Whether it translates to voter success in June of 2018 remains to be seen, but we think it will. 

From a policy point of view, Patrick Brown and the Ontario PC’s understand that they do not need to offer a radical policy prescription to win the election.  A “Common Sense Revolution” a la 1995 is not needed this time.  They just need to present a credible alternative to the Liberals and to present a policy prescription that speaks to the real concerns of Ontarians – transit, environment, health care, education. They need to speak to issues that resonate with typical middle-class voters around issues like affordability of electricity or auto-insurance and largely stay away from specific policy prescriptions to solve these problems.  Stick to saying that the Liberal’s couldn’t fix it or messed it up to begin with and that should be enough. 

Should be … but we’ve seen this movie before and it hasn’t always worked out for the Tories.

The Barriers on the Path to Victory

On Brown’s “path to victory”, I think there are six barriers in his way.  Two are barriers from within his own party and four are outside his control. 

The first is a problem of high expectations.  With the Liberals down in the polls, the expectation is that this election is the PC’s to lose.  That means he has more candidates seeking nominations to be on his team.  It means he has more demands on his time as more and more stakeholders look for a bit of face-time before he becomes Premier.  It means that every word he utters and every step he takes is scrutinized for fear it could be a misstep that imperils his rise to power.  So far,  Patrick hasn’t made many missteps – good news for the Ontario PC’s – but the scrutiny will only grow more intense from here.  

The second problem is that people expect him to articulate today what he would do as Premier when he is expected to take over in 10 months.  They want to know his policy positions today and they want him to speak as if he was the Premier already.  But doing that would be silly.  Why reveal your policy now when that just gives your opponents time to pick it apart? 

The danger for Brown is that this gives an opportunity for his opponents to define him in a way that best suits them.  The Liberals are only too happy to fill in the blanks that Brown leaves open and, so far, they are portraying him alternatively as a “scary” right wing ideologue, an empty suit or simply as someone not up to the job.  (Which is only fair. The Ontario Tories ran a successful campaign against Dalton McGuinty in 1999 with the tag line “He’s just not up to the job”.)  Most recently, they have even started trying to tie Patrick Brown to Donald Trump.  We're not sure that one’s going to work, but it’s certainly worth a try considering the environment. 

Within the Ontario PC Party, Brown's lack of a comprehensive policy platform is exposing him to all the competing factions within the party jockeying for position.  These factions - fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, red Tories, libertarians, law & order conservatives, rural, suburban and urban – are all competing for attention and trying to get their world view and their policy ideas into the platform.  And because Brown at various points has embraced almost all these groups in the leadership campaign or in his previous life as a Harper government MP, all factions feel he either owes them or is inclined to embrace their policy.  And when he rejects the pet policy of a particular faction – as he did around the sex-ed curriculum, a cornerstone issue of the social conservative faction – that faction is left bitter and disillusioned.

The truth is that this is the challenge that every Ontario PC Party leader faces.  The party, by its nature, is a coalition of disparate groups and the internecine fights within the party are bitter and long-lasting.   What unifies Ontario PCs is winning. When we’re not winning, they’re fighting.  If it still looks like the Ontario PCs are heading for victory in the spring of 2018, then we think conservatives in Ontario will rally and unify and the disaffected factions will be silenced.  Until then, the fights and divisions within the party are distractions and certainly not helpful, but not fatal. 

The four external barriers largely outside of Patrick Brown’s control standing in the way of a victory are:  Kathleen Wynne, the Liberal brand, the media, and Donald Trump. 

Kathleen Wynne?  Isn’t she at 14% in the polls?  How can she be standing in Brown’s way?  Well, yes, she is currently unpopular, but she is also the incumbent (which has its advantages) and she is a very savvy campaigner.  Those who like her, really like her and they will fight hard for her.  We don’t think that’s enough, but just on a personal level, Patrick Brown vs Kathleen Wynne is a study in contrast. On the one hand, a single, younger man vs. a more mature, married woman.  Which image better projects leadership in a crisis or difficult times? Don’t count Kathleen Wynne out just yet. 

As for the Liberal brand, don’t underestimate the Trudeau effect.  Justin Trudeau and the Federal Liberals remain popular in Ontario and while they have slipped in popularity in recent months, their slip is mostly among a demographic that was not voting for the Ontario Liberals in any case.  If Justin Trudeau can remind progressive/left voters that rallied to him in the last federal election that he has a kindred spirit in Kathleen Wynne, we suspect his endorsement can bleed support from the Ontario NDP and into the Ontario Liberal column.  Our bet is that we’ll see a lot of Justin Trudeau in Ontario in the spring of 2018.

The third barrier for Patrick Brown and the PCs relates to media.  First, there just aren’t enough of them.  The Queen’s Park press gallery is decimated and fewer than 20 reporters now produce most of the news content coming from Queen’s Park.  It’s harder and harder for the Opposition to get attention.  At the local level, it’s even worse. Large community newspapers like the Mississauga News are now staffed by just two reporters who are forced to cover local politics, crime stories, federal politics, provincial politics and the man-bites-dog stories. It’s nearly impossible to get attention and with fewer reporters covering the stories, fewer angles are covered.

On a related note, the regular Queen’s Park media are eager to test Brown in the crucible of an election campaign.  They are certainly doing this already, but we suspect they’re pulling their punches for a time when it really matters.  How Brown – and his candidates across Ontario – withstand this test will be a big factor in the campaign.

Filling the traditional media void will be social media … and that’s just a big wildcard fraught with dangers.  The good news for the Ontario Tories in this cycle, however, is that a number of on-line media resources have sprung up in recent months that favour the Ontario Tories, such as the grassroots conservative site “Ontario Proud” which has over 200,000 followers. The danger of relying on social media to get your message out is that the loudest and most strident voices carry the day in social media.  In a campaign where the Ontario PC’s are trying to look and sound mainstream and anything but radical, having social media proxies who skew to the radical with their statements carry a big risk.  There is also the very real risk that any misstep, misstatement or mistake by Brown or any of his candidates or supporters will be caught on camera and immediately become a viral video sensation.  Live by social media … die by social media.

The final barrier to the election of Patrick Brown comes from Donald Trump. This may seem a bit of a stretch in logic, but I have long feared that the election of Donald Trump and the crazier side of his politics is doing long-term damage to the conservative brand around the world.  If the Ontario public associates conservative ideology with Trumps policies (and we contend that very little of Trump’s policy agenda is, in fact, conservative) we fear that they will start to question conservatives everywhere.  The rebound reaction to the excesses of Trump is to move left and any momentum to the left – even if its just with a small part of the population - hurts the Ontario PC’s and could be an advantage for the Liberals.