Toronto·Analysis

Why Kathleen Wynne is so unpopular, and what she can do about it

With Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne currently at a rock-bottom approval rating, the optimistic view is she has nowhere to go but up.

Strategists say Wynne needs to prove she's not out of touch with the lives of ordinary voters

Ontario Liberal officials say their polling suggests voters feel Premier Kathleen Wynne doesn't understand the pressures they face in their daily lives. (Marta Iwanek/Canadian Press)

With Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's popularity currently at rock-bottom, the optimistic view could be that she has nowhere to go but up. 

Polls by three different firms in recent months suggest that just 13 to 16 per cent of voters approve of the job Wynne's doing. One pollster, Forum Research, called it "the lowest value we have ever recorded for a sitting premier."

Why is Wynne so unpopular?

The conventional wisdom of the moment is voters are angry about the skyrocketing price of hydro. The government's messages "didn't seem to jibe with what people were feeling in terms of their concerns about pocketbook issues," admits one senior Wynne adviser 

There's no doubt hydro is a big issue — so much so that tackling electricity costs will be the Liberals' chief priority in the upcoming budget.  But a bill that arrives once a month can't alone account for the extent of disapproval for Wynne. There must be something more fundamental.  

Liberal sources tell me their own polling finds Wynne is scoring badly with voters on such measures as "understanding the pressures in my daily life" and "understanding my situation."

In short, she's seen as out of touch with regular people. 

The political team around Wynne knows this is the kiss of death for a politician. They also know that if the Liberals are to have any hope of winning the election in June of 2018, Wynne must do more than just say she "feels your pain" — she must prove it.

A political consultant says voters outside Toronto see Kathleen Wynne as "big-city-oriented and not in touch with common folk." (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"We don't have to pretend she understands the situation people are in, because she absolutely does, but we do have to show that she understands," another senior adviser to Wynne told me.

Every political strategist I spoke with agrees it's essential for Wynne to overturn the perception that she's part of an out-of-touch elite, and must do so by the end of the year. They disagree on whether she can. 

A political consultant who is not advising Wynne says the disapproval is especially strong among voters outside Toronto. "They see her as being big-city oriented and not in touch with common folk," he said. "Any politician that loses touch with common folk loses touch with electoral success."

Yet he thinks she can turn her fortunes around — partly because of her skills as a campaigner — but only if she takes concrete action to get out of the Toronto bubble, connect with ordinary voters and demonstrate that her government is doing things to make their lives better.

Wynne 'has lost credibility'

Other pundits are all but writing Wynne off.

"She has lost that credibility with voters and once it's gone it's almost impossible to get back," said Quito Maggi, CEO of Mainstreet Research. 

His firm's polling in the latter half of 2016 suggested the Liberals would do far better without Wynne as leader.  

"It's not the message, it's the messenger," said Maggi in an interview. "Even some of the positives that this government has tried to announce the last six, eight, 12 months have been completely drowned out immediately by the negatives."  

Polls by three different firms in the final months of 2016 put Kathleen Wynne's approval rating in the range of 13 to 16 per cent. She faces an election in June 2018. ( Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"There comes a point with governments when there may be little they can do to change circumstances, particularly after a party has been in power for a long time," said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute.

But the team around Wynne is not pressing the panic button — yet.

"People haven't closed their minds to her," said one senior Liberal. His goal is to shift perceptions by reminding people of what they liked about Wynne when she first became premier in 2013 and led her party to a majority in 2014.   

One of the first steps was for Wynne to issue her mea culpa about hydro bills in November. "I take responsibility as leader for not paying close enough attention to some of the daily stresses in Ontarians' lives," she told a Liberal party gathering.

But to succeed, Wynne will have to do much more than just pay close attention. She'll have to convince people that she understands their struggles to pay the mortgage, put kids through daycare or college, fill their gas tank — and, of course, pay their hydro bills. She'll also have to convince people that she's their best choice to make things better. 

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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