'Magic' of simple message, simple strategy led to Ford victory

He may be polarizing to a significant segment of voters, have run a messy campaign and come with his own political baggage, but Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford may just have been the "ideal candidate."

PCs benefited from a voting public tired of Liberals, still skeptical of NDP

Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford, who will become the new premier, benefited from a voting public looking for change. But his majority election win was also a vindication for his team against the naysayers, including some in his own party, who believed his rise to the leadership doomed their chances. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

He may be polarizing to a significant segment of voters, have run a messy campaign and come with his own political baggage, but Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford may just have been the "ideal candidate" to win this Ontario election.

This assessment comes not from a conservative political partisan, but from Don Guy, veteran Liberal political campaign strategist, former campaign director and former chief of staff to Liberal ex-premier Dalton McGuinty.

"I think he was the ideal candidate because he gave small-c conservative voters a very comfortable home, a very comfortable archetype and a very strong message," he said.

Certainly Ford benefited significantly from a voting public looking for change —  tired of the Liberals and their unpopular leader Kathleen Wynne, who was never able to completely distance herself from the scandal-plagued McGuinty years or convince voters she represented a clean start for the party.

Ford, as well, was able to capitalize on Ontario voters who may have had no love for him, but remained somewhat skeptical of the NDP.

But Ford's majority win was also a vindication for his team against the naysayers, including some in his own party, who believed his rise to the leadership doomed their chances.

In the end, his controversial years by the side of his brother Rob Ford during his reign as mayor, scandals over party nominations, last-minute headlines about legal disputes with his brother's widow — none of it had enough impact to curb his path to victory.

'He came across as sensible'

"I think the fact that he came across as sensible during the debates really helped him a lot," said Kathy Brock, a political scientist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"He didn't get upset during them. It was a very controlled campaign. He was very much in control as well.

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"He had his key messages. He stayed on point. He repeated them."

Ford's control, says Brock, also served to counter the image his opponents tried to create, that he was a radical, hard-right conservative and Donald Trump clone.

None of Trump's xenophobia

While there may be similarities with Trump in terms of populist appeal, Ford, like his brother, had made significant inroads into various ethnic communities in Toronto, and his campaign has none of the xenophobia attached to the U.S. president's, said Brock.

And like his brother, Doug Ford portrayed himself as a tax-cutting warrior, a fiscal conservative who believes governments waste too much taxpayers' money.

That message, says Guy, was simple and repeated over and over —  a Ford government will be a responsible steward for taxpayers' money, "and that help is on the way for hard-working families."

Ford said he would cut taxes, cut the price of gas, cut hydro rates, cut the price of beer and eliminate the deficit while spending billions on transit and infrastructure projects.

Supporters react in Toronto on Thursday night after learning Doug Ford had won a majority government. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

"He had a simple product, and he was selling it at a lower price than anybody else in terms of tax cuts and other commitments of reduced prices, whether it was for gas and beer etc.," said Ryerson University political science professor Myer Siemiatycki.

"So you know those are tangible deliverables that one could imagine people are attracted to."

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How Ford would deliver on these pledges was never fully explained. It wasn't until the end of May that his campaign put out a costed platform, with the exception of an important detail. While putting a price tag on those and other promises, they neglected to include how any of them would be paid for.

Finding 'efficiencies'

Yet Ford's go-to explanation, simply that he would find "efficiencies" in government, may have resonated with voters.

"People do see government as being wasteful in some ways. Everybody's got a story about that. So that kind of hits home," said  Brock.

Premier Kathleen Wynne tells supporters Thursday night that she is resigning as Liberal leader. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Ford's strategists employed a front-runners campaign, minimizing the opportunities for him to make mistakes, which included little access for the media. 

Indeed, the imprecision of the policy platform was designed to keep the different coalitions within that party together and the different voting coalitions together without getting pinned down on anything that's too specific, said Cristine de Clercy, a political science professor at Western University in London, Ont.

Imprecision doesn't hurt

"Clearly that that didn't substantially hurt them, it was a viable decision," said de Clercy. "If you think you're going to win, why basically give your opponents the opportunity to attack your plan?"

Ford's campaign, put together relatively last minute following the sudden departure of former leader Patrick Brown, was by normal standards, disorganized and slow, not at all what one would expect from the party,  said Jonathan Malloy, chair of the political science department at Carleton University.

On the campaign trail, Ford got out to greet supporters, including these ones in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"And you know that sort of chaos is consistent with the leader's brand. I mean, Mr. Ford doesn't pretend to be … a smooth organized individual, and the campaign platform reflected that."

Chaotic, maybe, but ultimately simple and effective, said Guy.

'The magic of it'

"That was the magic of it. The simplicity of the message, simplicity of the strategy, everybody could understand it."

The winning strategy, Guy says, was simply to take the angry rural conservative base that's been building over the last four elections and add the established voting pool made up of Ford Nation, that core group of supporters in Toronto who were faithful to former mayor Rob Ford and were the key to his one-term rule.

Some believed Christine Elliott may have been a stronger, safer candidate who appealed to other voters and demographics not enamoured of Ford. But Guy said the strategy the party implemented would not have been readily available to her, meaning no one can say whether Elliott would have made an even better showing.

"They would have had to invent a whole new wheel."

Despite Ford's victory,  Siemiatycki noted the strong showing of the NDP and the seats won in different pockets of Ontario. 

"This was not a Ford landslide romp to victory," he said. "Among all the Ontarians who voted in this election,  the majority did not support Mr. Ford. So it's not like there is this massive groundswell of attachment to Mr. Ford."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.


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