The 'Ford factor' and battleground Ontario

In this week’s Canada Votes newsletter: Will the "Ford Factor" sink the Conservatives in this election? Also: How is the latest SNC-Lavalin news affecting the polls - and how much money can parties spend in the election?

The Canada Votes newsletter is your weekly tip-sheet as we count down to Oct. 21

Will the 'Ford factor' sink the Conservatives in this election?

Vassy Kapelos, host of Power & Politics

A foreign species invaded Ottawa this past week. 

No, not people who like to have fun (I kid). Representatives of Ontario Premier Doug Ford's government were here to meet with the Association of Municipalities — which is a fancy way of saying "all the mayors in one room."

The relationship between the mayors and the Ford government hasn't exactly been a happy one.

After Ontario municipalities passed their budgets, the provincial government announced it was cutting municipal funding earmarked for things like public health and child care.

A big fight ensued, with the mayors accusing the province of trying to pull a fast one and the province saying everyone had to pitch in to tackle the deficit.

The mayors won round one; the cuts were put on hold. This week the cuts were re-introduced — but they won't take effect until the new year, and not to the degree initially proposed.

In his speech to the Association of Municipalities Monday announcing this walk-back, Premier Ford tried to smooth things over with the mayors with lots of talk of working together and forging "partnerships", something called a "transitional fund" — you get the drift.

There's a reason the Ford government's language and tactics on budget austerity have changed. The cuts to municipalities, to autism programs, classrooms, libraries, legal aid … they didn't go over well.

Popular support for Doug Ford and his government cratered. One poll said Ford was less popular than former Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne right before she lost the election. Ouch.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford tried to smooth things over with Ontario mayors with lots of talk of working together and forging "partnerships" after walking back his cuts to public health and child care. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Federal Conservatives knew all this before the rest of us, of course. Their candidates in the 905 area surrounding Toronto heard it at the door. It was a high-ranking Conservative who first told me in early May that "this guy [Ford] could sink us."

And though it's the federal Liberals who have seized on the Ford factor most openly — taking every opportunity to identify their primary opponent as Ford, not Andrew Scheer — Conservatives seem to be disseminating that message just as much as their rivals, if not more. They're just doing it very quietly.

For every high-profile Liberal saying things like "the Ford government and Conservatives like them," (drink!), there seems to be a federal Conservative telling people privately that if the party does lose the election, it will be due to Doug Ford. "He's our Achilles heel," an MP told me just last week.

I met with nearly a dozen people who work in the Ford government this week. Most of them don't think the federal Conservatives will win a majority in this election, but most of them hope they will. They freely admit they messed stuff up and that the five-month break they took from the legislature was intended to calm the waters for Scheer and his team. "It's the least we can do," one staffer told me.

But some of them are also kind of annoyed at how they're being talked about in federal Conservative circles. They feel like they're being set up as a scapegoat in the event Team Scheer does lose the election in October.

One high ranking staffer told me he'd been told, straight up, that if Scheer faces a leadership review following the election, his message will be, "I lost because of Doug Ford."

It's impossible to say at this point whether the Conservatives are losing the pre-writ period, given how tight the polls are for both them and the Liberals. 

But the 905 is really important. A third of all the seats in the House of Commons are in Ontario, and about a third of those are in the 905. Conservatives tend to do well in the 905 — Ford did in the 2018 provincial election — but the people living there don't love his budget cuts.

And though Scheer has worked to distance himself from those cuts, the Liberals' push to handcuff the federal Conservatives to their provincial cousins in voters' minds is bearing fruit, at least according to the public opinion polls. (Internal Liberal polls too — there's a reason they keep making announcements in Ontario.)

As I've said before, I don't know if the "Ford factor" will be a deciding factor in October. A lot can happen between now and then. But just like the SNC-Lavalin issue I wrote about last week, the Ford government presents a political narrative that could move votes. The suggestion that Scheer, if elected, would cut services and programs you and your family depend on is one the Liberals will work hard to hammer home. So they'll keep talking about Ford as long as they can.

And so will the Conservatives … quietly.

Vassy Kapelos is host of Power & Politics, weekdays at 5 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

Power Lines

The Power & Politics Power Panellists on where the big parties will be focused this week

Amanda Alvaro  president and co-founder of Pomp & Circumstance
Liberals will continue to press Andrew Scheer on ending his lifelong boycott of Pride events, while demanding that Canadians deserve to know if he would still deny same-sex couples the equal right to marry. Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau will continue to stand up for middle-class jobs, a clean environment and Canadian values at the G7 Summit.

Rachel Curran senior associate at Harper & Associates Consulting
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer will highlight his plan this week to make life more affordable for ordinary Canadians and lower the cost of living. His message to voters will be that it is time for them to get ahead, not just get by.

Kathleen Monk principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group
New Democrats understand Canadians want someone to challenge politics-as-usual, whether it's Justin Trudeau saying one thing to Canadians and then helping his corporate friends instead, or the resurfacing of Andrew Scheer's prejudiced rant against the LGBTQ community. As he gets officially nominated this week, Jagmeet Singh will show how he's ready to fight to put people first. 

Poll Tracker Takeaway 

Éric Grenier's weekly look at key numbers in the political public opinion polls. 

The big question last week was whether the ethics commissioner's scathing report on the SNC-Lavalin affair would have the same catastrophic impact on Liberal support that the initial breaking of the story did this past spring.

This week, we got our answer: Nope. Or not yet, at least.

The answer came from three pollsters who published new numbers this past week and were also in the field in mid-July: Ipsos, Abacus Data and Léger.

The average support for the Liberals recorded by these three pollsters in July was 32 per cent.

And now? It's 32.7 per cent.

It's up a little, but not enough to be statistically significant. Still, it suggests the report has not had any impact on Liberal support.

That's not to say that it won't in the future, but early indications are that it did not change voters' minds. Abacus even found that, for the vast majority of respondents who were aware of the report, it merely confirmed what they already thought.

It certainly hasn't improved the Conservatives' position. The polls found the party's support actually dropped by an average of 1.7 points. Support for the New Democrats and Greens was virtually unchanged.

But both Abacus and Ipsos found a small slip in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's own personal ratings. So it's possible that Liberal support has been made more fragile as a result of the report — a weakness the opposition parties undoubtedly will try to exploit over the next eight weeks.

For now, however, the Liberals appear to be weathering the storm.

Tap here to go to the full poll tracker 

Canada Votes 2019 Poll Tracker: federal polling averages as of August 21, 2019. Conservatives: 33.9%, Liberals: 32.6%, New Democrats: 14.3%, Greens: 10.6%, Bloc Quebecois: 4.1%, People's Party of Canada: 2.8%

Ask us

Anujanrajah on Instagram asks: What is the spending limit for each local campaign and each party? 

The money a party can spend depends on how many candidates are running under its banner. According to Elections Canada, if a party runs a full slate of 338 candidates, it can spend up to $28.1 million.

In addition to this cap on the national campaigns, candidates in each riding also have spending limits for their local campaigns. The limit varies by riding, ranging from about $85,000 in Prince Edward Island to as much as $139,000 in the Quebec riding of Lac-Saint-Jean.

Combined, each party and its candidates can spend up to $65.6 million. That sounds like a lot of money (it is) but it's unlikely any party will get anywhere close to spending that much. (The Liberals, for example, won't bother spending to the limit in rural Alberta.)

And to put that sum in perspective, the price tag of the 2016 U.S. presidential and congressional elections was, according to one estimate, just under $9 billion in our dollars. That's the equivalent of the economic output of almost three Greenlands.

— Éric Grenier

Have a question about the October election? About where the federal parties stand on a particular issue? Or about the facts of a key controversy on the federal scene? Email us your questions and we'll answer one in the next Canada Votes newsletter.

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Thanks for reading. If you've got questions, criticisms or story tips, please email us politics@cbc.ca

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