Andrew Tumilty: In Ontario, three different leaders face very different challenges

Article originally published in The Line

It’s understandable if it feels like 40 years have passed since Doug Ford became premier of Ontario, but I assure you it’s only been four. I’m certain because Ontario’s next election campaign will officially begin sometime next week. 

While Doug Ford, Andrea Horwath, and Steven Del Duca may have the same goal for the campaign, they each have unique challenges to overcome. Some will be harder than others and considering the path each leader must navigate to succeed, could suggest who is most likely to. 

For full disclosure, I’ve worked for Liberal candidates and campaigns. I have a preference for how this election turns out, but it doesn’t mean I cannot be objective about the political landscape at the outset. 

For political professionals, election campaigns are not places for fandom that flies in the face of reality — it’s not like cheering for the Leafs. Being able to objectively evaluate your opponents and your own campaign, to accurately and fairly identify strengths and weaknesses, including your own, is critical to any successful election. 

With that said, let’s start with the leader who may have the simplest campaign challenge. Ontario Liberal Party leader, Steven Del Duca. 

Del Duca’s challenge is that polls show many people in Ontario remain unfamiliar with him. In different circumstances this might be a bigger obstacle for a party leader, but neither the NDP or Progressive Conservatives have managed to define Del Duca in their own terms yet either.

Del Duca has eliminated a substantial debt from the party’s books, nominated a slate of candidates across the province that reflect Ontario’s diversity, and has been polling well ahead of the party’s disastrous results in 2018. 

The party is likely to at least triple its current seat count. Del Duca has an excellent chance to become leader of the Opposition or hold the balance of power in a Ford minority government. Ending up premier himself is certainly not impossible, particularly if the anti-Ford vote consolidates behind the Liberals over the NDP.

Ontario Progressive Conservative premier Doug Ford’s challenge is a bit more difficult than Del Duca’s, but it’s one that polls suggest he can certainly overcome. It’s Ford’s election to lose, but he needs to win this one on his own merits. 

Ford will not have then-premier Kathleen Wynne to run against this time. He must run on his own government’s record, and conceptually that’s more difficult than a campaign built on attacking the record of a government that was in power for 15 years.

While he won a majority in 2018 in his first foray into provincial politics, there is a consensus among the punditry that a reasonably camera-friendly coat rack with a PC sticker on it could have beat Wynne. 

Before his run for premier, Ford had spent years building up an image of an outsider fighting for the little guy. That is an easy image to run on when you’re on the outside, as he was in 2018. Remember, he’d only just been selected as the PC leader less than three months before the election. He did not have a seat in the legislature, and never had. Running as the outsider, though, is tricky to do when you’re the frontrunner who has been in charge for four years. 

The NDP’s Andrea Horwath has the toughest challenge in this campaign, because for her it is hard to imagine anything short of an NDP government will see her continue as party leader. She has led the party since 2009 — before Netflix was in Canada, for some cultural context — and has lost three elections in a row. The NDP pride themselves on being accepting and inclusive, but an inability to win is a condition they are unlikely to tolerate any longer. 

In 2018 Horwath had a contentious opponent in Ford and a complete collapse of the Liberal vote as advantages. Under those ideal conditions, she still couldn’t deliver a win. Four years as Opposition Leader haven’t given her party a dramatic boost in the polls from their 2018 results, and the Liberals are looking to come back much stronger than in the 2018 campaign. 

Horwath’s campaign trail needs to find its way to the Premier’s Office, and the map to get her there may not exist. 

Three leaders, three distinct challenges, one election campaign about to begin. 

Hopefully the next four years don’t feel as long as the last four have. A week may be an eternity in politics, but the people of Ontario are hoping for a leader who can make a week feel like seven days again. 

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