How Omicron gave Doug Ford's government its worst polling numbers in 2 years

Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet received their worst polling results of the COVID-19 pandemic as the Omicron wave of infections hit Ontario, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Cabinet's taxpayer-funded polls track public's view of government's performance, COVID-19 response

Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet received their worst polling results of the COVID-19 pandemic as the Omicron wave of infections hit Ontario, according to documents obtained by CBC News. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet received their worst polling results of the COVID-19 pandemic as the Omicron wave of infections hit Ontario, according to government documents obtained by CBC News. 

The figures are found in the reports of polling paid for by taxpayers and commissioned by the cabinet office, the arm of the provincial public service that serves the premier.

The polling, obtained through a freedom of information request, reveals what the government learned week-by-week about public opinion of its overall performance and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A key question these polls have asked throughout Ford's term: "Overall, do you feel that the Ontario provincial government is on the right track or the wrong track, in terms of how it is governing the province?"

In January, the percentage of people answering "wrong track" hit levels not seen at any time in the pandemic. 

The Jan. 11 polling report, prepared for the cabinet office as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 surged in Ontario, showed 58 per cent of those polled saying the government was on the wrong track, the highest percentage since February of 2020. 

This slide, obtained through a freedom of information request, tracks the results of government-commissioned polling since 2018. It shows that during the Omicron wave of COVID-19, for the first time in the pandemic, the majority of those polled said the Ontario government was on the wrong track. (The Strategic Counsel/Ontario Cabinet Office)

Throughout 2019 and the first two months of 2020, the government's "wrong track" score in the same series of polls, conducted by the Strategic Counsel research firm, ranged from 52 to 66 per cent, then plunged dramatically after the pandemic hit the province.

The new polls obtained by CBC News cover a period from mid-September 2021 until late January.

Polls that were previously obtained showed the public's generally positive view of the government's performance in 2020 but then growing dissatisfaction during the second and third waves of COVID-19.

The Jan. 11 polling report contained other bad news for Ford and his PCs. 

"In terms of the economy, rating of the government's performance for the economic and government spending metrics ... are now at the lowest levels since tracking began," the polling firm said in its summary of key findings that week. 

The government's performance on 'making life more affordable' received a score of –45, meaning the proportion of people rating its performance as "good" was 45 percentage points lower than those rating it as "poor."

The Ontario government's polling found support for continuing public health measures trending downward from mid-December until late January, while support for a plan for relaxing public health measures trended upwards. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Other highlights from the most recent polling:

  • The percentage of people strongly agreeing with the statement "I am getting very tired of all the COVID-19 control measures, such as mask wearing and social distancing" rose steadily in the weekly polls, hitting 40 per cent by late January, up from 28 per cent in early December.
  • From the end of November to mid-January, the government's rating for 'keeping people safe during the COVID-19 situation' dropped 43 percentage points. 
  • In polling last September, an average of 72 per cent said they supported the province's vaccine passport system, while 24 per cent were opposed. 

The government wasn't just interested in public opinion on the COVID-19 response. Polls in recent months included  questions about Ontario's minimum wage, the cost of housing and the impact of inflation. 

In late September the government-commissioned polls began asking respondents about Ontario's minimum wage —including whether the rate should be raised to $15 an hour. Ford announced precisely that minimum wage increase on Nov. 2. 

Over the course of four weeks of polling ahead of Ford's announcement, about 60 per cent of respondents said they favoured a $15 minimum wage, while 34 per cent opposed it.

The Ford government's polls surveyed public opinion about more than just the COVID-19 response. In recent months, polls included questions about the cost of housing, Ontario's minimum wage and inflation. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The question, "How concerned are you about inflation increasing the cost of basic living expenses?" was first asked in late October and continued for five weeks. On average 91 per cent of respondents described themselves as concerned, including 65 per cent who said "very concerned." 

Nearly half of those polled in that period agreed that they "will definitely need additional income to make ends meet this coming year." 

The pollsters began specifically asking Ontarians about the cost of housing in mid-January, a few weeks before a government-appointed advisory panel urged the province to dramatically boost the housing supply by increasing density and speeding up development approvals. 

Nearly half of those polled over a two-week period said the significant increase in the cost of buying a home was a bad or very bad thing, while less than one-fifth described it as a good thing. Those results came even though 60 per cent of the respondents said they own their home. 

The pollsters asked respondents why they believe housing costs have risen so much recently, and gave them three options to choose from: 

  • Too many people wanting to buy or rent a home (35 per cent).
  • Not enough new homes being built in areas where people want to live (30 per cent).
  • Not enough people selling or renting homes (21 per cent).
Polling commissioned by the provincial government asked respondents: 'How concerned are you about this new COVID variant otherwise known as the Omicron?' The results show that from mid-December through mid-January, concern dropped even as Ontario's COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations rose. (The Strategic Counsel/Ontario Cabinet Office)

The trends in the tracking polls show how public opinion shifted as the Omicron wave built, but the shifts were not always what you might expect.

In late October and early November, before the Omicron variant of the virus emerged, the pollsters found as much as 75 per cent of respondents agreeing that "we are over the worst of COVID-19." 

Concern over Omicron and the potential for a fifth wave of COVID-19 started registering in the government's polling in early December. 

As the wave built, more and more respondents began telling the pollsters they believed the government was not doing as much as it should to reduce the spread of the virus, peaking at 43 per cent over the Christmas and New Year's holiday period. The figure exceeded the percentage saying the government was "doing what is required" for the first time since the peak of the third wave in the spring of 2021.

But from early January, even as the number of patients with COVID-19 in Ontario hospitals surged to record highs, the pollsters found concern about Omicron dropping.

In polling conducted immediately after the government banned indoor service at restaurants and bars, closed gyms and put Ontario schools into remote learning, the results show early indications of a pushback against the restrictions.

"There has been a 10-point decline in support for wanting public health measures to be continued (49 per cent) and a 10-point increase for a plan for relaxing public health measures (38 per cent)," the pollsters said in their Jan. 11 summary of key findings.     

Polling methodology

The polling was commissioned by the Ontario cabinet office and conducted by the Strategic Counsel. The polling firm reported that its polls reached 1,200 respondents monthly by telephone, randomly and proportionately selected from across Ontario, using mobiles (60 per cent) and landlines (40 per cent). The monthly results have a margin of error of ± 2.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The results were reported to the government weekly, broken down into rolling samples of 300 respondents each week. The sample size for some of the individual questions varied from week to week.



Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.