Why Are People Surprised that Doug Ford Won?

Elections are often decided, first and foremost, by who voters don’t want.

Thus, in 2015, Canadians decided that they had had enough of Stephen Harper. At first, they appeared to be leaning toward the NDP, but when the Liberals showed positive momentum, voters flocked to them. They were collectively determined to avoid an even split of anti-Harper votes and gave the Liberals a strong majority.

Likewise, in 2013 Nova Scotians had become thoroughly disenchanted with the NDP and focused on the question of whether Jamie Baillie or Stephen McNeil was the least like Darrel Dexter. They settled on McNeil’s Liberals, now into their second term.

The most recent, and arguably the most compelling, instance of this voter behaviour is the June 7th Ontario election.

The Liberals had been in power since 2003 and by all rights should have lost the 2014 election, based on the dismal track record of Dalton McGuinty. He stepped aside and the Liberals were led by Kathleen Wynne, whose effective campaigning as a new face was streets ahead of the less-than-charismatic Tory leader, Tim Hudak.

By the time this year’s election came along, her track record included burgeoning deficits, efforts to conceal expenses and debts that were called out by the province’s Auditor General, using access to her cabinet as a fund-raising program for the party, coddling public sector unions in exchange for massive campaign donations, and further mismanagement of power generation, just to name a few of the stains.

So the first decision the voters made was to give the Liberals a serious time out. Their share of the vote slipped below 20%. Their seven seats were not enough to receive official party status and the funding that goes with it. They were no better than third in 91 of the 124 seats.

The provincial NDP noted that their federal counterparts’ campaign, based in part on a commitment to fiscal responsibility, had not been a success. The federal Liberals had tacked to the left of them.

Andrea Horwath’s NDP wanted none of that, promising more money for schools, universities, hospitals, long term care, $12 a day child care, pharmacare, dental care, 30% cuts in electricity rates, and much more.

The cost estimates for that formidable list were understated. Correspondingly, the expected revenue from tax increases on wealthy individuals and corporations were overstated.

The NDP program would have run deficits even larger than the Liberals’. That is not a viable plan for a province that already has a severe debt problem.

The principal difference between Horwath’s proposals and the unhappy experience with the NDP under Bob Rae is that, in her case, the damage to Ontario’s balance sheet would have been the result of conscious choices.

The NDP did well in areas where it is traditionally strong, but a platform further left than the Liberals, even without the sleaze, was not going to lead to breakthroughs in new territory.

The Tories under Doug Ford ran a shambolic campaign. Their platform hardly qualified as conservative, with lots of populist promises and no discernible plan for funding them. The one advantage they had was that they were less extravagant than the other two—for example, promising 12% cuts in electricity rates compared to 30% by the NDP.

Ford did not win because he presented a cogent and compelling candidacy, but rather because the alternatives were worse.

Professional pundits feeling the need to discern deeper meaning have reached some peculiar conclusions.

One said Ford’s victory “cements the arrival of populism in a province that once was governed by common sense.” But he goes on to say that many of the Ford voters would have preferred Christine Elliott—suggesting that a non-populist would have done even better.

Another pundit tries to draw an analogy with Trump’s success in the rust-belt states like Michigan. It is rather disabling of that argument that the NDP won the blue collar seats in Hamilton and Windsor.

A third asserted that “Political anger has won the day in Ontario,” and goes on to say, “Ontario voting also mirrors the deepening political cleavage between urban, affluent, ethnically diverse Canada and hinterland areas whose economies are struggling, whose populations are not very multicultural…”

If this thesis is correct, the suburban ridings in places like Mississauga and Markham, where Ford did very well, are part of the hinterland and Northern Ontario, which was solid for the NDP, is not.

Given the antipathy for the other two parties, it is arguable that the Tories would have won under almost any leader. The election was about who the voters did not want.

It will not be especially difficult for Ford to exceed the expectations of the pundits. What will be difficult is the fiscal challenge that all three parties ignored.

The credit rating agencies will not be kind if deficits continue to spiral out of control. Ford will not be able to deliver cheaper beer, cheaper electricity, and lower taxes without deep cuts elsewhere.

Ford was lucky to have such unpopular opponents. He is unlucky to inherit a fiscal mess. If he wants to be more than a one-term premier, he must create positive reasons for voters to support him in four years’ time, in spite of the difficult choices he will have to make.


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