Andrew Scheer has an Ontario problem — and it could be Doug Ford

Premier Doug Ford's unpopularity might be sapping federal Conservative support in Ontario, the province Andrew Scheer needs most to win in October.

Scheer isn't breaking through in Ontario, where polls show high levels of unpopularity for Premier Ford

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (left) hasn't seen his party increase its support in Ontario as it has in other parts of the country - while Ontario Premier Doug Ford's popularity has hit new lows. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Andrew Scheer's Conservative Party is struggling to make inroads in Ontario, the battleground province that's likely to decide October's federal election. He might have Ontario Premier Doug Ford to thank for that.

Multiple polls suggest Ford and his Progressive Conservative government are deeply unpopular, just one year after ousting Kathleen Wynne's Liberals from office.

While those polls undoubtedly aren't being welcomed by provincial Progressive Conservatives — and may have been the motive behind Monday's about-face on cuts to municipal funding — they don't necessarily represent a pressing problem for Ford. He still has another three years to go before the next provincial election.

But the Ford government's dismal poll numbers could present a big problem for Scheer, who needs Ontario if he's to win the federal vote that's now less than five months away.

The Conservatives continue to hold a six-point lead over the Liberals nationwide in the CBC's Canada Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data. The Conservatives have led ever since the SNC-Lavalin affair sent Liberal support tumbling.

The party has seen some significant gains in certain parts of the country. Compared to where the Poll Tracker pegged Conservative support in January and early February (before the SNC-Lavalin story broke), the party has gained up to five points in Quebec and the Prairies and between five and nine points in Atlantic Canada.

The Conservatives are also holding their support in British Columbia and Alberta. The drop in Liberal support has increased the Conservatives' lead by about four points in B.C., five points in Alberta and nine points in the Prairies, while shrinking the Liberal lead in Quebec and Atlantic Canada by about 11 and 22 points, respectively.

But the dial has not moved as dramatically in Ontario.

The Conservatives hold a slight edge over the Liberals in the province, with 37 to 34 per cent support. While that represents a big drop for the Liberals, who won 45 per cent of the vote in Ontario in the 2015 election, it shows Scheer's party up only two points over the result that cost Stephen Harper his job — and down as much as five points from where the Conservatives were in the province at the beginning of the year.

So what could be holding Scheer back in Ontario, when his party's position has improved so much in every other part of Canada?

The Ford factor

Polls conducted in the last month have shown the popularity of Ford's PC government hitting lows last seen in the final days of the Wynne Liberals. The two sunniest ones — by Pollara and Ipsos/Global News — still put the approval of Ford and his government at just 30 per cent, with between 64 and 70 per cent of Ontarians disapproving of their performance.

Both polls report that nearly half of those surveyed say they "strongly disapprove" of Ford and his PC government.

Polls by Mainstreet Research and Abacus Data show just 20 to 22 per cent of Ontarians have a favourable or positive impression of their premier.

And three of four polls put the Progressive Conservatives behind either the New Democrats or the Liberals in voting intentions. All four of them show significant decreases in support for the party, compared to their 2018 victory.

Andrew Scheer's Conservatives hold a slight edge over the Liberals in Ontario, with 37 to 34 per cent support. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

While the Ontario PCs and the federal Conservatives are two distinct entities, the two parties share a lot of the same policies, ideology and membership. They also share most of the same voters. The electoral map that gave Ford his majority government in last year's election looks a lot like the one that gave Harper his majority in 2011.

Scheer also has not shied away from sharing a platform (or a magazine cover) with Ford.

Ontario key to Conservative majority

But if the unpopularity of Ford's PC government brushes off on Scheer's Conservatives, it could cost his party a victory in October.

The gains that the Conservatives have made in other parts of the country are unlikely to pay a lot of electoral dividends. There are only a handful of seats to gain in Alberta and the Prairies at the expense of the Liberals, while the Conservatives have yet to take off in B.C. in a way that would deliver a pile of new seats.

Only in Atlantic Canada have the Conservatives put themselves in a position to make serious inroads.

In Quebec, the Liberals' drop is likely to benefit the Bloc Québécois more than the Conservatives, as the Bloc moves ahead in seats now occupied by the New Democrats. The space vacated by the Liberals in Ontario has been taken up in the polls by the Greens and the NDP, rather than the Conservatives.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford returns to his office in the Queen's Park Legislature in Toronto after announcing the cancellation of retroactive cuts on Monday, May 27, 2019. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

In January, the Conservatives were projected to win about 55 seats or so in the province. Now, the Conservatives are projected to win about 58 seats. They are about 10 seats short of a majority nationwide.

Those 10 seats normally would come from Ontario. When Harper won his majority in 2011, 73 of those seats were won in Ontario — when the province had 106 ridings instead of today's 121. Scheer might be able to improve on Harper's 2011 performance in Quebec (where he won just five seats), but not enough to make up for the shortfall in Canada's biggest province.

Ontarians have a long history of sending governments of different political shades to Toronto and Ottawa — either to have someone at Queen's Park who will stand up to an overbearing federal government, or to have a prime minister who will keep their own premier in check.

Scheer's problem now is that, in the country's most electorally important province, he's associated with one of the country's most unpopular premiers.

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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.