What the federal Tories can learn from Doug Ford's big Ontario win

While federal Conservatives may not be able to use the same exact political playbook, they could learn some lessons from Doug Ford's majority re-election win in Ontario this week, election analysts say.

Federal Conservatives set to pick a new leader in September

Federal Conservatives could learn a thing or two from Ontario Premier Doug Ford's re-election playbook, but the dynamics of a leadership campaign are also different, according to some election analysts. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Federal Conservatives could learn some lessons from how Doug Ford led the Progressive Conservatives to re-election in Ontario last week, but they may not be able to replicate his playbook, election analysts say.

"I think there are lessons, particularly in the [Greater Toronto Area] for the federal Conservatives to learn," said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"After all, Ford won a hell of a lot of seats in Toronto and in the GTA, something that the federal Conservatives haven't been able to do in multiple election cycles."

The federal Conservatives are in the midst of a leadership campaign and will name a new leader in Ottawa on Sept. 10. 

The party always performs well in rural Ontario. But since Justin Trudeau became prime minister, it has been largely shut out from vote-rich Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area — a politically coveted ring of surrounding suburban communities, also known as the 905 area for its area code, which includes cities such as Brampton and Mississauga.

Yet on Thursday night, Ford's PC's swept through the GTA, with a strong showing in Toronto as well. The contest includes former Quebec premier Jean Charest, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, MPs Scott Aitchison and Leslyn Lewis, and Ontario MPP Roman Baber.

Bratt suggested that that path to electoral success is not through pursuing an ideological campaign.

'Pragmatic leader'

"The federal Conservatives don't need to win Alberta. They need to win Ontario. And so I think the playbook to look at is Doug Ford and being a pragmatic leader," he said.

"That's the challenge that we're seeing in the federal campaign where both Charest and Brown are talking about broadening the Conservative base and Pierre Poilievre is focused solely on that base.

"And then how do you make that pivot? Ford made that pivot."

Federal Conservatives will select their new leader in Ottawa on Sept. 10. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Michael Diamond, who worked on Ford's leadership campaign as well as federal Conservative general election campaigns, said there was a "huge lesson" for Tory leadership candidates from Ford's win about "growing beyond your historical confines."

"Turning enemies into friends without turning friends into enemies is what Doug Ford did," Diamond told The Canadian Press. "By reaching out and making inroads and engaging in dialogue, Ford attracted a new demographic to the party."

Diamond said the Progressive Conservative premier's appeal to the labour movement and his endorsement by trade unions made crucial inroads into the NDP's traditional working-class base. It's a strategy leadership contenders could mirror to grow Tory support federally, he said.

But Jamie Ellerton, a public relations strategist at Conaptus, who is also managing the federal leadership campaign for MP Scott Aitchison, suggested comparisons to a general election and internal party race aren't so simple.

It's a greater challenge for federal politicians to have a vision that will speak to each region in the country uniquely to their circumstances, while at the same time offering a bigger picture of what Canada can be, he said.

And when it comes to a leadership race, "ultimately you're talking to kind of a different group of people" — a very small percentage of the population who actually belong to a political party, he said.

Still, Diamond suggested there are some takeaways from Ford's campaign, including his ability to reach beyond traditional supporters.

"I think one of the things you saw Doug Ford successfully do over the past four years for his re-election campaign was speak to a broader subset of the population that goes outside of traditional Conservative voters [and] brought them into the fold," he said.

WATCH | Doug Ford's victory speech: 

Doug Ford's victory speech

10 months ago
Duration 11:17
Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford speaks to supporters after winning a decisive second majority.

Ellerton said Ford is constantly talking "across the aisle," over the heads of his political rivals to speak to voters directly.

"I think if you look at how that translates to federal politics, I think there's lessons to kind of look at what that approach has done," he said. "I think that very much is a blueprint for how the Canadian Conservative Party could be successful."

Not enough to scream at Trudeau

Ellerton said the federal Conservatives need to present a more positive message on what they can offer voters, as Ford did during his campaign, projecting confidence, while focusing on what the PCs will do to get government working for Ontarians. 

"I think Conservatives need to be offering a positive iteration of what conservatism can do for the country and how it's going to make the lives of all Canadians better," he said.  "It cannot be the party that simply screams at Justin Trudeau and constantly wants to denigrate the prime minister."

But Kate Harrison, vice-chair of public affairs firm Summa Strategies, cautioned against taking too many lessons from Ford's election campaign and Thursday's victory.

Ford faced a particularly weak opposition, she said, and an apathetic electorate. Fewer than half of eligible voters cast ballots.

She said she didn't agree with the  idea that the federal Conservatives need to start behaving and acting like Ford as far as his "small-P populist, not ideologically conservative approach to things."

"I'm not sure that that is necessarily something that's needed to win the country," she said. "I think that you can do a pretty effective job of drawing contrast on key outlooks and visions for the country compared to your opposition under a partisan banner and still be successful."

Authenticity key

Harrison suggested that a leader's authenticity may be key. That one of the problems with former federal Conservative leader Erin O'Toole, who was accused of portraying himself more as a moderate during the election, compared to when he ran for leadership, she said.

The perceived lack of authenticity of former Conservative leader Erin O'Toole may have contributed to his defeat in the federal election, according to one political strategist. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

No one would question that the ideas being put out by Poilievre, considered the front runner in the leadership race,  are rooted in fundamental conservative ideology, Harrison said.

"Will voters in turn reward that because they don't think that there's necessarily a hidden agenda there?" she asked.

"Doug Ford — the authenticity factor is very high. He's generally viewed as quite accessible, folksy, et cetera," she said.

"Rarely has [Poilievre] been kind of caught up in somebody accusing him of not saying or doing something different than what he actually believes. How much do voters value that authenticity versus the actual policies that are in the mix?"

Ford's folksy approach that appeals to many voters may also be hard for the federal Conservative leadership contenders to replicate, analysts say.

"Looking at especially Pierre [Poilievre] , he is taking a dramatically different approach to a Doug Ford," Bratt said.

"I don't know if they can copy Ford. I mean, there's a certain 'ordinary person that is there' that Jean Charest and Patrick Brown don't have either."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

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

With files from The Canadian Press

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