Ontario PC leadership race is a 'ground war' in its final week of battle

The short campaign period for the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race and the online voting system have meant added challenges for the four candidates. Their campaigns acknowledge their ground games need to be strong to lead them to victory.

The 4 candidates trying to connect with as many members as they can before voting ends Friday

With the Ontario PC leadership race in its final stretch, the four candidates — left to right: Tanya Granic Allen, Caroline Mulroney, Christine Elliott and Doug Ford — are focused on their ground game. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The Ontario PC leadership race is in its final stretch, and that means the campaigns are now focused on ensuring their ground games are strong and poised to push them over the victory line.

"We are just hustling," Tanya Granic Allen, one of four candidates vying for the job, said Monday in a phone call while on her way to an event in Hamilton. "We are full steam ahead."

On-the-ground organization and get-out-the-vote efforts are typically important in any election, but this PC leadership race has been anything but typical. It was an unexpected one, prompted by former leader Patrick Brown's sudden resignation on January 25 following allegations of sexual misconduct. (Brown later entered the race to replace himself, then withdrew from it.)

Tanya Granic Allen says her campaign is 'full steam ahead.' (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The party quickly organized a leadership race with the winner to be revealed on March 10, giving candidates little time to mount a province-wide campaign and sell memberships before the Feb. 16 deadline.

The party also decided voting would be exclusively carried out online, with a strict verification process to reduce the risk of fraudulent voting.

The short time frame and multi-step online voting process have posed challenges for Granic Allen and her rivals, Christine Elliott, Doug Ford and Caroline Mulroney.

'Ground war, not air war'

Leadership campaigns are different than general election campaigns in that they rely more heavily on face-to-face encounters with voters to convince them to support a candidate.

"It's all about ground war, not air war," said Melanie Paradis, director of communications for the Elliott campaign. "This is much more about being on the ground, in communities, doing meet-and-greets, answering questions from members directly, doing tele-townhalls, giving members as many opportunities as possible to speak to and hear from the candidate directly."

Christine Elliott's campaign has found that a lot of party members are active Facebook users, so they are using their voter lists to directly message supporters on the platform. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The campaigns organized aggressive tour schedules that took the candidates all over the province. Voting began Friday, and their itineraries were jam-packed over the weekend. Their schedules won't let up this week as they squeeze in campaign events to make their final pitches before voting ends at noon on Friday. 

"I live in a car," Granic Allen said of her hectic travel schedule. "Every day gets busier and busier."

Meanwhile, volunteers are busy working the phone banks — a tried-and-true method for identifying supporters and making sure they know how to vote. 

Social media outreach

Social media is another place campaigns are trying to get out the vote.

Elliott's campaign, for instance, is doing what it calls "social banking." Their research tells them a lot of party members are active Facebook users, so they are using their voter lists to directly message supporters on the platform.

Email blasts are commonly used by the campaigns, and the candidates are actively promoting themselves on Twitter.

Tweeting doesn't cost money, but the other campaign activities do, and that's where fundraising can make a difference, to pay for all those events and phone banks and even for slick social media videos.

Caroline Mulroney's campaign has touted her fundraising and boasted that she raked in more than $700,000 in 22 days. (CBC)

Mulroney's campaign has touted her fundraising and boasted that she raked in more than $700,000 in 22 days. That pot of money means Mulroney is "well-placed" to execute a solid ground game, according to Lisa Raitt, her campaign co-chair.

Raitt, a federal Conservative MP, said the ground game is "the most important part of the game right now." Mulroney had four "Meet Caroline" events Monday, and has another five Tuesday. Her father, former prime minister Brian Mulroney, is also hosting an event. 

No in-person voting 'an error'

Members will cast a ranked ballot, but before they can do that they have to register to vote — and the process is causing concern for the campaigns.

"The party made an error in my opinion," Ford's campaign manager Michael Diamond told CBC News about the lack of in-person voting. "Not everyone is comfortable with online voting," he said.

Members have to upload a photo of their identification to have it verified and ensure it matches the party's membership database. They also have to enter a verification code they received in the mail.

Doug Ford's campaign manager Michael Diamond told CBC News the party made 'an error' restricting voting to online. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The deadline to register has already been extended twice because members were complaining they hadn't received their code yet.

Once a member has successfully registered, they get another code by email that allows them to log onto the voting website where they can fill out their digital ballot. Granic Allen said her email ended up in her spam folder. 

The process has meant the campaigns have dedicated a lot of effort to helping people vote, especially those who aren't tech-savvy, who don't have access to a computer or who don't use email or a smartphone.

They've all held "registration parties" to sign people up, and if someone calls a campaign office asking for help, they're even sending out volunteers to make home visits.

"We've got to make this easy on people," said Diamond.

John Yakabuski, a PC MPP supporting Mulroney, said there are "some challenges" posed by the online voting system, and that's why it's critical the campaigns are ensuring their supporters know how to vote.

How effectively a candidate does that could mean the difference between winning and losing, he said.

"I think every candidate has enough people out there to win — if their people show up and the others don't," Yakabuski said.
The winner will be announced Saturday at an event in Markham, north of Toronto.


Meagan Fitzpatrick is a multi-platform reporter with CBC in Toronto. She previously worked in CBC's Washington bureau and covered the 2016 election. Prior to heading south of the border Meagan worked in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She has also reported for CBC from Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter @fitz_meagan


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