For Andrew Scheer, matching Doug Ford's victory of a year ago won't be enough

If Andrew Scheer's Conservatives want to win in Ontario, they'll need to do better than the numbers put up by Doug Ford's PCs in 2018.

Numbers show there aren't enough voters in 'Ford Nation' to win the election for Scheer on their own

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (left) needs to win the seats won by Ontario Premier Doug Ford (right) in last year's provincial election if he is to form a government. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

A year ago, Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives secured a decisive victory in Ontario's provincial election. In the process, they laid out a roadmap for Andrew Scheer's Conservatives to follow in this year's federal election: win the same parts of Ontario that Ford did and watch Prime Minister Justin Trudeau go the way of former premier Kathleen Wynne.

But "Ford Nation" is not the towering electoral coalition it's sometimes made out to be. Even if Scheer wins every Ontario vote in October that Ford won last year, that alone wouldn't be enough to defeat the Trudeau Liberals.

He'd need a little help. Luckily for him, the Liberals are providing it — for now.

In the 2015 federal election, the Liberals won 80 seats in Ontario. In the 2018 provincial election, the Ontario PCs won 76 seats.

With the exception of ridings in northern Ontario, the electoral map in the province is identical at both levels of government.

In southern Ontario, 42 ridings elected both Liberal MPs in 2015 and PC MPPs in 2018. They're predominantly located in the Greater Toronto Area, with 11 in Toronto itself and another 21 in the surrounding 905 area code. Three ridings in the northern part of the province with largely similar electoral boundaries also split between Trudeau in one election and Ford in the next.

If Scheer is able to flip these 45 Trudeau-Ford ridings in October's election, that alone would be enough to deprive the prime minister of another majority government and (at the least) put Scheer in the driver's seat in a minority Parliament.

But despite Ford's commanding victory last year — the most seats won by any Ontario party since Mike Harris in 1995 — his vote tally was remarkably similar to the score Stephen Harper put up in his losing 2015 campaign.

The Harper Conservatives received the support of 2,293,393 Ontarians in 2015. Three years later, the Ontario PCs earned 2,326,523 votes, or about 1.4 per cent more than the federal Conservatives did — far less than the rate of growth in the province's population over that time.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks with supporters at a 2015 election campaign event in Kitchener, Ont. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the Trudeau-Ford ridings, the Ontario PCs captured about 29,000 more votes than the Harper Conservatives did in 2015 — averaging just 638 more votes per riding than Harper won. There is a clear relationship between the performance of the PCs in each of these ridings and the performance of the federal Conservatives three years earlier, suggesting that this is largely the same pool of voters.

That pool was only big enough to win the Conservatives 33 seats in 2015. In only four of these Trudeau-Ford ridings did the Ontario PCs win more votes in the provincial election than the Trudeau Liberals did in the federal election.

In other words, if the Liberal vote holds and Scheer manages to get every Ontario PC supporter to cast a ballot for his party in October, he gains only four of these Trudeau-Ford seats (and polls suggest the ranks of Ontario PC supporters are thinner today than they once were).

The winning Ford vote in 2018 is very much like the losing Harper vote in 2015. If Scheer can't improve upon those results, he needs the Liberals to fall back.

Liberal drop, not 'Ford Nation', key to Scheer win in Ontario

Turnout in the federal election in 2015 was far higher in Ontario (67.8 per cent) than it was in the provincial election in 2018 (56.7 per cent). The Trudeau Liberals also received many more votes than the Ontario Liberals did.

That's why the roadmap provided by the Ontario PCs is not one that can win an election for Scheer on its own. The federal Liberals would need to lose about 280,000 votes across the Trudeau-Ford ridings for Liberal candidates to receive fewer votes than the winning PC candidates did in 2018. That represents about a quarter of the votes Trudeau's party got in those ridings four years ago.

The good news for Scheer is that — according to the CBC's Canada Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data — that's what has happened to the Liberals in Ontario. With 34.3 per cent support in the province, the Liberals have lost about 11 points from their performance in the 2015 federal election, or just under one in every four votes they received.

But at 35.2 per cent, the Conservatives are no further ahead today in Ontario than they were in 2015. With these levels of support, any win in a Trudeau-Ford riding by Scheer would be due to the drop in the Liberal vote, rather than any increase in the Conservative vote.

Scheer needs Liberals to go elsewhere or stay home

Two factors contributed to Ford's victory in 2018. One was the bleeding of Liberal support to Andrea Horwath's New Democrats. The other was a lot of Liberals staying home on election day.

Though we can't know for certain how (or if) Ontarians who supported Trudeau in 2015 voted in the 2018 election, the numbers are stark. In the 45 Trudeau-Ford ridings alone, the Ontario Liberals received nearly 700,000 fewer votes than the federal Liberals did.

The Ontario New Democrats under leader Andrea Horwath were the primary beneficiaries of a drop in Liberal support in 2018. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

The Ontario New Democrats were the biggest beneficiaries, as they received about 300,000 more votes than their federal cousins did in the province. The Ontario Greens and PCs, however, did just about as well as the federal parties who fly the same colours.

This means that perhaps as many as half of the voters who supported the Trudeau Liberals in 2015 in these key swing ridings stayed home in 2018 rather than cast a ballot for the Wynne Liberals.

Still, the parts of the province that supported Ford in last year's election are the same areas that helped give Harper his majority government in 2011. The Conservatives will be looking to the same bits of Ontario to help them win in October.

But Scheer will need to follow a narrow path if he wants to win the same way that Ford did — a path that banks on a big chunk of the Liberal vote staying home, or showing up only to support other parties. The polls suggest the Liberals are vulnerable — but also that they might be at their lowest ebb. Scheer can't count on things staying this way as the election date approaches.

His chances would improve if he instead grows the Conservative tent in Ontario, since without a split on the centre-left or a disengaged electorate, there just aren't enough Ford backers in the province to win Scheer a federal election.

CBC Politics' new weekly Canada Votes newsletter

Get analysis from our Parliamentary bureau as we count down to the federal election. Delivered to your inbox every Sunday evening – then daily during the campaign. Sign up here.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.