Ontario Liberals face some big challenges — and one huge opportunity

Steven Del Duca is poised to win the Ontario Liberal leadership — and could become the front-runner to replace Premier Doug Ford.

Steven Del Duca is poised to win the Liberal leadership and challenge a vulnerable Premier Doug Ford

Former provincial cabinet minister Steven Del Duca secured a majority of the delegates up for grabs in voting for the Ontario Liberal leadership in February, and is poised to win on the first ballot at today's convention. (Frank Gunn / Canadian Press)

The Ontario Liberal Party chooses its new leader today. All indications suggest that person will be Steven Del Duca.

The former cabinet minister will take over a party facing some serious challenges. Despite that, he also might very well be the next premier of Ontario.

It would be a stunning upset for Del Duca to fail to win the Ontario Liberal leadership. He already has secured a majority of elected delegates at the convention and claims to have the support of enough ex-officio delegates to ensure a first ballot victory. His closest rival, Don Valley East MPP Michael Coteau, won just 18 per cent of elected delegates in votes held across the province last month. Del Duca won 56 per cent.

It was a leadership race without any high-profile candidates. That's hardly surprising; the Ontario Liberals were pummelled in the 2018 election, dropping from a majority government to just 19.6 per cent of the vote and seven seats. The party sits in third place at Queen's Park, without enough MPPs to qualify for official party status.

Right now, the Liberals are in the worst position they have ever been. The party's fundraising trails that of the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats by a significant margin and the Liberals' annual allowance for the coming year is half what the PCs will receive.

The next scheduled provincial election is a little more than two years away. Getting the party back into contention would be a daunting challenge for any leader — particularly for one as little-known as Del Duca.

Steven who?

Despite the challenges facing the Ontario Liberals, the party actually has led in a number of recent polls.

The Liberals have placed first or tied for the lead in eight of 12 polls published since last spring. In six polls conducted since December, the Liberals have averaged 33 per cent support among decided voters, against 31 per cent for the PCs and 25 per cent for the NDP.

But there are some serious caveats to go with these numbers. Leaderless parties often benefit from representing everything to everyone: voters who normally would be sympathetic to the Liberal Party can imagine an ideal leader in the role.

In the absence of an actual election campaign, provincial polling in Ontario often can be greatly influenced by how Ontarians feel about the federal parties. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals won the most seats and votes in Ontario in October's federal election.

A recent survey by Campaign Research suggests the Liberal brand is much stronger than Del Duca's.

Ontario Liberal Party leadership candidates (left to right) Brenda Hollingsworth, Michael Coteau, Steven Del Duca, Alvin Tedjo, Mitzie Hunter and Kate Graham. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Without listing the names of any party leaders, the survey found 36 per cent of decided voters supporting the Ontario Liberals. The PCs trailed with just 30 per cent and the New Democrats were third with 21 per cent.

When the names of Premier Doug Ford, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Del Duca were included in the survey question, however, Liberal support plummeted by 11 points to just 25 per cent, putting the Del Duca Liberals in third. The PCs only received a small boost, rising to 32 per cent — while the New Democrats jumped 10 points to 31 per cent.

Ontarians don't know Del Duca very well. The survey found that 61 per cent of respondents had no opinion of him, compared to 34 per cent for Horwath and just 11 per cent for Ford. When Ontarians were asked whether they would vote for a Liberal Party led by someone they'd never heard of, many of those who initially backed the party switched their support over to the NDP.

That suggests the Liberals can't count on defeating Ford by default. But that doesn't mean they won't.

Ford's PCs are vulnerable

It isn't unprecedented for a new Liberal leader to elicit shrugs from Ontarians. When Dalton McGuinty won the Ontario Liberal leadership in 1996, an Angus Reid Group poll found that 56 per cent of Ontarians didn't have an opinion of him.

He was also facing a Mike Harris PC government that was relatively popular at the time and would go on to be re-elected in 1999.

But Ford's PCs are in rougher shape. The party has been mired at around 30 per cent support for nearly a year, well below the 40.6 per cent of the vote the PCs captured in the June 2018 election.

Ford's approval ratings have dropped to around 30 per cent. A recent Angus Reid Institute survey found just 31 per cent of Ontarians approving of the premier's performance, with 66 per cent of respondents saying they disapprove — including 55 per cent who "strongly" disapprove, which is by far the highest level of strong disapproval for any premier in the country right now.

According to a recent poll, 55 per cent of Ontarians "strongly" disapprove of Ontario Premier Doug Ford - the highest such rating for any premier in the country. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Polls suggest the New Democrats have not been able to capitalize on this opportunity. Their support has dropped significantly since the 2018 election and has settled at more traditional levels.

But it isn't just the polls suggesting that the PCs are in trouble, the NDP is struggling and the Liberals have some momentum.

The two provincial byelections held in Ottawa–Vanier and Orléans on Feb. 27 corroborated the shifts measured by the polls. The Liberals won the seats, both of which historically have been very safe for them, picking up an average of 13 points over their 2018 results in the two ridings. The NDP dropped an average of six points and the PCs went down by 11 points, giving the Tories their worst results since the 1990 election, when the PCs were relegated to third party status.

Applying those swings to the provincewide results from 2018 would boost the Liberals to 33 per cent and drop the PCs to 30 per cent and the NDP to 28 per cent — numbers that look a lot like provincial levels of support in recent polling.

It all suggests that the Liberals now have a real opportunity to become the alternative to the Ford PCs that many voters want, filling a space that the New Democrats have failed to occupy. That would put the party in a very good position to contend in 2022.

It looks like Del Duca is going to be given that opportunity by Ontario Liberal members. Let's see what he does with it.


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.


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