For weeks polling numbers in Ontario have been largely stagnant, with Doug Ford’s governing PC (Progressive Conservatives) party continuing to command a clear lead and projecting a victory of roughly 70 seats (a majority is 63). While the Liberals and NDP (New Democratic Party) have been mostly tied in second place for months, the third place Liberals have been slowly increasing their vote share and are currently solidly tracking for second place. Coming into the campaign with only eight seats, the Liberals were nearly decimated in the last election and clearly have the greatest ground to make up. This is where week two begins.
Week two kicks off with the much-awaited release of the Liberal platform. Though they have been making policy announcements for weeks, this is the first glimpse of the full, costed plan the Liberals are putting to voters. Or rather, urban progressive voters.
The Liberal plan is a clear play towards regaining the ground they lost to the NDP in 2018. Though many can argue that the 2018 campaign saw Liberal votes bleed to both the Tories and the NDP, far more votes were lost to the NDP than the Tories, which consequently caused vote splitting in suburban ridings that resulted in Tory candidates being elected. Winning back those disgruntled progressives is necessary for a Liberal victory, and this means regaining their traditional foothold in Liberal strongholds, like urban Toronto, parts of the GTA and other smaller urban settings like Ottawa and Thunder Bay.
To do this, the Liberals need to reconnect with their base; urban women and progressives. To appeal to these voters, the Liberal plan includes socialist measures like increasing the minimum wage, bringing back the minimum income pilot, increases to social assistance rates and a pilot on a four-day work week. It also speaks to families with promises to improve education and health care, the bedrock of Ontario politics.
What is different this time is the populist bent the platform has taken. As affordability remains the top issue on the minds of voters this campaign, the Liberals felt the need to respond with their own catchy policies like reducing all transit fares in the province to $1 a ride and eliminating the HST on prepared foods under $20. Taking a page out of the NDP playbook, they intend to pay for these measures through increased taxes on billion-dollar corporate profits and individuals who make more than $500,000 a year, teeing up a classic populist fight against rich elites.
Expect this theme – the growing divide between the haves and the have nots – to play out throughout the campaign. The Liberals will try to paint Doug Ford as a leader who lines the pockets of his friends and tilts public policy to the benefit of corporate interests, and paint Andrea Horwath as the insufficient crusader who failed to save you from Doug Ford’s callous cuts and record high inflation.
Will all this be enough? The Liberals face an uphill battle in breaking through to voters. They have a new and mostly unknown leader who is up against a popular Premier that spent the better part of his first mandate on television almost daily thanks to the pandemic. Polls suggest that this is not a change election and despite the NDP’s best efforts, voters are not interested in making this campaign a referendum on pandemic response. With only eight incumbent candidates, the Liberals are running to unseat 116 people who are already elected and known in their communities. The Liberals lost nearly all the ethnic support they held last campaign and this platform does little to woo those voters back into the fold. Despite the benefit of four years, they have a record in government that still haunts them today (for example, although hydro prices went up under the Ford government, Ontarians continue to blame the Liberals for electricity rates).
Notwithstanding Ford’s strong polling numbers, a majority of Ontarians will not vote for him or his PC party on June 2nd. Those are the votes the Liberals are targeting, and they have a few advantages up their sleeves.
Brand: The Liberal brand in Ontario continues to poll very strongly – above both the leader and the NDP. This suggests the potential that voters will return ‘home’ after a brief stay with the NDP.
Team: The Liberals are running the most gender balanced, diverse and young team the party has ever seen. They are the first party in history to run more female candidates than male candidates, a metric that will surely gain attention in their target ridings.
Resources: Although a distant third, the Liberals managed to pay off their debt and fill their war chest, giving them the money, they need to run a competitive campaign.
Muscle memory: Say what you will, but the Liberals know how to win. They have experienced campaigners and volunteers who have pulled off miracles before and are enjoying the support of freshly elected federal Liberal MPs in key ridings throughout Ontario. This is critical in close riding races that are won or lost by mere hundreds of votes.
The Liberals certainly have a long way to go to unseat Doug Ford, and with only 24 days to go, it is not likely they will form government on June 2nd. Perhaps that was never the plan. Getting back to official party status and forming Opposition would be considered a win by many Liberals throughout the province. Knocking Doug Ford down to a minority government and forming Opposition would be a colossal win for many Liberals. Therefore, you will see the Liberals more focused on targeting the NDP than the PCs in the coming days. Perhaps this is all just a battle for second place.