How suburban moms hold the key to the provincial election

This column originally appeared in National Newswatch on April 2, 2018

We should all listen to our mothers more and Doug Ford is no exception. Starting his winning leadership campaign in his Mom’s basement wasn’t just a fun dis to the elites, it should serve as a nod to his most important group of voters.

Political campaigns tend to run complicated data and polling operations that slice and dice voters into target demographic groups. While that type of planning will be important to the Ford camp, they should hold one group up as a litmus test for everything they say and do during the campaign: suburban mothers.

The Tories are in an enviable position right now. Virtually every poll has them ahead by a significant margin. A vast majority of Ontarians want a change in government. And with only a few exceptions, their lead cuts across many regions and voter types.

In some ways, the election feels like what happened in British Columbia in 2001 and Manitoba in 2016. Voters in those provinces had long since made up their minds to switch governments and the election proved to be a final stamp of disapproval.

But nothing is guaranteed. With two women opponents and a long track record of conservative parties having women voters turn on them at the last minute, the group he needs to worry about most is obvious. It’s clear that attracting these voters will be the goal of Kathleen Wynne.

Doug Ford should relentlessly focus on women voters in a way conservative leaders rarely do. And the most important ones to his campaign are centered in the suburban ridings around Toronto.

He needs to talk to them, relate to them and never forget them for even a moment of this election campaign.

This isn’t about playing identity politics or announcing a bunch of women-specific policy proposals. A winning strategy for the Tories involves making sure women feel included in Ford Nation. They need to see their struggles addressed in Ford’s priorities with language that speaks to them.

The top issues with the electorate center around affordability, taxes, accountability and healthcare. These aren’t male or female issues. But there’s a way of talking about them and approaching them that will resonate better with suburban women.

Doug is a tax fighter. His brand of being a warrior against the gravy train is set in stone. His relentless focus on concerns of the folks makes him a natural ally for a province where hallway healthcare and a growing mental health crisis symbolize the need for new management at Queen’s Park.

The challenge is conservative parties too often use language, imagery and storytelling that appeals to the core male donor but misses the mark with the busy mom who is part of the 80 per cent that are ready for change.

As an example, the standard Tory Facebook post that features a bad looking photo of Wynne with angry red writing yelling at you on screen. There’s a reason ads, magazines and products geared to women don’t look and feel the same as a Budweiser commercial.

Beyond appearances, it’s making sure that women know Ford has them in his heart by speaking to the struggles individual families face, not simply shaking his fist into the sky at all the waste and mismanagement.  It’s a case for change that uses real, down-to-earth examples of how hydro is more expensive, child care is more expensive and commutes longer because of actions taken by the Wynne Liberals.

As an added bonus, speaking directly to women voters is low risk. It’s hard to imagine a language and style that appeals to hardworking suburban moms yet turns away other voters or drives them to the other parties. Many, if not most, of these women oversee budgets in their own homes. They know how to manage money and want their politicians to do the same.

The only danger is allowing the primary campaign narrative to drift away from the big issues and spend time focused on niche conservative social issues the Liberals are so desperate to fight an election on.

Ford cannot let that happen and if it does he must take bold, categorical action keep control of the change wave. He’s good at that.

Still, going up against two strong women won’t be easy. The traps to say something nasty will be there every day. And you’re only one ‘mansplaining’ slip away from telling those suburban Moms you don’t really respect them.

But that won’t happen. Because Ford is surrounded by women in his daily life. He has an all-star roster of female candidates to lean on. It won’t be hard for him to be authentic and genuine while still appealing to them. He just needs to make sure his broader campaign hits the right tone and that always comes from the top.

When in doubt, he needs to talk to a Mom. And they aren’t hard to find.

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