Strategic voting, Doug Ford and why the Conservatives 'couldn't break through' in Ontario

The defeat of Conservative politician Lisa Raitt in her Milton, Ont., riding was a significant personal political loss for the veteran politician, but also a symbol of the disappointing finish for her party in Ontario.

Tories gain a few seats in vote-rich province but unable to make big gains

Lisa Raitt loses her seat

3 years ago
Duration 0:51
In her concession speech, Ontario Conservative candidate Lisa Raitt says it has been an honour to serve as the deputy leader of her party.

Inside a subdued Milton, Ont., pub, Conservative MP Lisa Raitt thanks supporters after losing to a rookie Liberal candidate, former Olympian Adam van Koeverden. The defeat is a significant personal political loss for the veteran politician, but also a symbol of the disappointing finish for her party in Ontario.

"The reality is that is not the result we wanted, unfortunately," Raitt said.

Nor is it the result the Conservatives had hoped for across the province, where they gained a trickle of seats but fell  short of what they hoped to achieve.

"The Liberals essentially held their own and the Conservatives couldn't break through," said Elly Alboim, an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University.

In Milton, a city of just over 100,000 located about 60 kilometres west of Toronto, the Liberals recruited Olympic gold medal champion van Koeverden to try and topple a former cabinet minister, leadership contender, deputy party leader and all-around political giant.

Milton is just one of the coveted 905 and Greater Toronto Area ridings, and one the Conservatives needed to keep and build upon in order to form some kind of government whether majority or even minority.

Repeated stops

The province itself is widely viewed as essential to electoral victory, and it became a focal point for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leaders Andrew Scheer, who made repeated stops here.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau repeatedly invoked the name of Doug Ford during the campaign. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

But the fact that the Liberals did bleed some seats in the province and across Canada suggests there was an opportunity for the Conservatives in Ontario, said Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus of political science at Ryerson University.

"There were all kinds of seats in 905, in kind of semi-rural, quasi-urban Ontario, that were there to be had for Mr. Scheer. He didn't get them.

"Even though they picked up some seats in Ontario, [it was] not nearly enough and not nearly as many that not that long ago were being projected," he said.

Toronto itself remained a sea of red, and so did areas where the Conservatives hoped to make inroads, in ridings like Brampton and Mississauga.

So why were the Conservatives unable to make the electoral gains in the province?

When Raitt was asked the question, she said simply, "I have no idea," and that she would have to go over the results with her staff.

Alboim suggested there's no law of physics that precludes the Tories from gaining support in Ontario

Ontario did play a critical role in building the Liberal majority in 2015, capturing 80 seats of the 121 in the province and 43 per cent of their entire seat total.

But the Harper Conservatives made great gains in the then Liberal-dominated parts of Ontario in 2011. And in 2018, led by Doug Ford, the Progressive Conservatives won a decisive majority in the province.

'Natural balance'

The reason for the Conservatives' disappointing results may, in part, have to do with tradition, said Queens University political science professor Kathy Brock. Voters in Ontario vote opposite to the government that's in Ottawa, she said.

"There's a natural balance that occurs."

But Alboim said he thinks other factors were in play, like "the NDP collapse" in Ontario and the failure of the Greens to advance, which allowed the Liberals "to cash in."

The outstanding question of the night is whether strategic voting played a significant role, he said.

While it's too early to determine, Alboim said he thinks "it's very likely that enough NDP voters voted Liberal to keep the status quo."

And that leads to the so-called Doug Ford factor, and how much the growing discontent with the premier prompted some Ontarians to withhold political power from a federal Conservative leader.

According to a Vote Compass survey, it just may have played a defining role. Nearly 25,000 respondents were asked whether Ford's policies in Ontario made them more or less likely to consider voting for the Conservative Party in the upcoming federal election. Fifty-one per cent said they were much less likely, while 12 per cent said somewhat less likely.

"Doug Ford's support has dropped so precipitously since his election. To align himself to Doug Ford I think probably would have cost Mr. Scheer even more,"  Siemiatycki said.

"As eager as Mr. Trudeau was to speak about Doug Ford, conversely to the same intense degree, Andrew Scheer was determined not to mention the name."

Referendum of Ford

Trudeau turned much of his campaign into a referendum on Ford, with an attempt to link him, and his unpopular cuts, to Scheer.

During one campaign stop in Hamilton, Trudeau invoked the premier's name 14 times (including twice in French).

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer appeared together on stage at the Conservative national convention in Halifax last August. But the premier was largely absent from the campaign trail. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Ford's absence on the campaign trail became a bit of a political albatross for Scheer, forcing him to field questions from reporters about whether he was intentionally avoiding the premier.

(Ford himself addressed the issue by saying he was busy governing the province and wasn't going to involve himself in the federal campaign.)

"The Conservatives must have had internal polling showing them it would be a liability for the party," Siemiatycki said.

WATCH: Andrew Scheer says despite loss, Conservatives are 'government in waiting'

'We are the government in waiting,' Scheer says

3 years ago
Duration 1:29
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he's looking forward to heading back to Ottawa with a bigger Conservative team while speaking to reporters in Regina, Sask. 

However, as Brock, the Queen's professor noted, the Liberals didn't make any big gains in the province, either. Some of that may have had to do with the effects of the SNC-Lavalin affair, which she thinks had an impact on holding and depressing the party's vote.

But Brock said the Liberals may also have hit too hard "on the anti-Ford note."

"I think that took them so far, and it took them places with their traditional voters. But I don't think it won them the vote in the 905 that they hoped that it would win them."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

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


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