Premier Doug Ford, who is due to unveil his new cabinet on Friday morning, won re-election because opponents “underestimated” his appeal to voters, insists one of his top advisers.
Top strategists from all four political parties told The Star’s Martin Regg Cohn during the Democracy Forum at TMU that Ford’s personal brand resonated with Ontarians on June 2 despite the challenges of COVID-19.
Nick Kouvalis, the prime minister’s pollster, said ‘the Ford brand’ was a key reason the Progressive Conservatives won 83 seats in the 124-member legislature, up from 76 in the 2018 election .
“One of the big mistakes the Liberals made was doing this about Steven Del Duca versus Doug Ford. If they had gone party-brand over party-brand, I think they would have done better,” Kouvalis said Thursday, noting the enduring popularity of the Liberal brand in Ontario.
“We never looked at (Liberal leader) Steven Del Duca…and underestimated him…but I think they underestimated (Ford),” he said, suggesting rivals conservatives “buy into” a narrative that Ontario has fared better during the pandemic than other jurisdictions.
“The general public actually thought he had done a good job and that compared to (Quebec Premier Francois) Legault and compared to (outgoing Alberta Premier) Jason Kenney and compared to the ( former federal Conservative leaders) Andrew Scheer and … Erin O’Toole, he did a very good job.
Michael Balagus, the NDP campaign leader, said his party detected the same thing when polling people who normally alternate between voting for New Democrats and Conservatives.
“What was very, very clear with these voters was that they weren’t willing to blame Doug Ford for everything that happened during the pandemic,” Balagus said at the Toronto Metropolitan forum. University, formerly known as Ryerson.
“And they have a lot of things that have gone wrong. They give you such a long list… but it was the fault of his bad advisers, his terrible ministers, the media, the doctors, who forced him to do things — none of it was his fault said the NDP, whose party won 31 seats, up from 40 in the previous election.
“I think Nick is absolutely right: Doug Ford’s personal brand has been hugely important to the Conservatives’ ability to win this campaign.”
Christine McMillan, the Liberal campaign manager, agreed with Kouvalis’ assessment that the Conservatives’ huge cash advantage also hurt Del Duca’s chances.
“Going back to what Nick was saying about the prime minister’s personal brand – that plays into all of this as well,” said McMillan, whose party won eight seats to seven in 2018.
“I think the Prime Minister has done a very good job creating his own Teflon in some ways,” she said.
Becky Smit, the Greens’ campaign chair, conceded her party was unable to capitalize on leader Mike Schreiner’s performance in the televised debate, which many observers believe he won.
“I agree with Christine. We were all trying and in our case I think we inspired people…but the lesson learned for us is to turn that inspiration into votes on election day,” Smit said, whose party retained its single seat in the legislature.
Pressed by Cohn on how provincial Tories effectively neutralized COVID-19 vaccines as a political issue by forcing MPs and candidates to get vaccinated, Kouvalis said it “vaccinated us.”
“I mean, I don’t think the federal Conservative leaders can even tell you how many of their caucus members have or haven’t been vaccinated. They were even afraid to go and ask the question,” he said, referring to the Conservative Party of Canada.
Kouvalis praised Ford, campaign manager Kory Teneycke, chief of staff Jamie Wallace and principal secretary Amin Massoudi for being decisive and agreeing to kick out anyone who refused to get vaccinated.
“We had like 70 members and it only took 63 to have a majority, so you might as well cut your losses quick and burn the bleeding and move on,” said the veteran pollster, who also led public opinion research. for the star.
“It sounds rough and terrible…but our advice to the prime minister…was ‘You’re going to get slaughtered if you keep these people in your caucus,'” he said.
“So if they don’t want to get vaccinated because they have an objection, that’s fine, that’s their choice – and they can’t be in our caucus.”
The Democracy Forum event took place as Ford put the finishing touches to his new cabinet, which will be sworn in at 11:15 a.m. Friday at Queen’s Park.
“It’s the hardest thing with any prime minister. You have 83 very, very qualified people and some will be in cabinet and some will not. But we have a great team,” the premier said earlier this week.
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