If Ontario Premier Doug Ford is defeated in next year’s provincial election, he might look back at this past week as the beginning of the end for his government — the moment when his pandemic-fuelled popularity came to a sudden halt.
As the province’s third wave hit record highs in daily COVID-19 case counts and new admissions to Ontario’s already-strained hospitals, Ford’s government introduced new measures last Friday that threw up checkpoints at the province’s borders, gave police officers sweeping new powers and shut down a number of outdoor activities that most health experts have deemed safe.
Less than 24 hours later — and following a public outcry — the closed playgrounds were re-opened and police forces across the province refused the new powers they were given. Border stops duly went up on Monday but the Ottawa police are saying already that they will no longer continuously monitor crossings over the Ottawa River.
Ford himself has been absent from press conferences and the Legislative Assembly as he isolates himself after being exposed to a staffer who tested positive for COVID-19.
It’s the kind of tumultuous week of muddled communications and sudden policy reversals that Ontarians got used to over the first 18 months of the Ford government.
It might also be the week when the sympathy the premier gained because of the pandemic disappeared for good.
Ontarians sour on Ford’s pandemic management
As they did for many governing leaders across the country, Ford’s poll numbers soared in the early months of the pandemic.
In March 2020, before the virus shut Ontario down, polling by the Angus Reid Institute (ARI) gave Ford an approval rating of just 31 per cent. By June, Ford’s approval had surged to over 60 per cent. He retained those numbers into the summer.
But Ford’s grades on the pandemic were sliding already before the latest developments. In early April, ARI found that just 32 per cent of Ontarians thought he was doing a good job handling the pandemic, down 23 percentage points since November.
This past week may accelerate that negative trendline; the Innovative Research Group (IRG) found that satisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic slipped five points before and after the announcement of the new restrictions.
Ford’s personal numbers taking a big hit
While the government’s ratings are dropping, two recent polls suggest that Ford himself has taken a big hit in popularity over the last few days.
The poll by IRG found that the number of Ontarians with a favourable opinion of Ford fell from 37 per cent before Friday’s announcement to 29 per cent after it. His unfavourable rating increased five points to 51 per cent.
Another survey by Abacus Data suggested that the share of the provincial population reporting a positive impression of Ford fell from 39 per cent earlier in April to just 28 per cent over the last few days. The portion of the public with a negative impression of Ford jumped nine points to 46 per cent — the premier’s worst number since the beginning of the pandemic.
The Abacus poll suggests that Ford is losing ground even among his own supporters. About one-fifth of people who voted for the Progressive Conservatives in 2018 now have a negative impression of Ford — nearly twice as many as last week. Among those who self-identify as voters on the right of the political spectrum, 35 per cent now have a negative impression of Ford, an increase of 12 points in just one week.
PC re-election hopes not shattered — yet
Support for the PCs has not been hit as hard as Ford’s personal popularity. But the PCs would still struggle to win re-election if a vote were held today.
The Abacus and IRG polls suggest that the Ontario Liberals have about 35 per cent support, putting them narrowly ahead of the PCs, who scored between 30 and 34 per cent in the two surveys. The New Democrats, who form the Official Opposition in Toronto, came up third with between 23 and 26 per cent support.
Abacus did not find a significant shift in party support before or after Friday’s announcements, though IRG did record the gap between the Liberals and PCs widening by seven points.
Polling between elections in Ontario can be challenging; provincial politics often takes a back seat to federal and — in some places — municipal politics. There has been a good deal of variation between pollsters’ assessments of the state of the race in the province for some time, but the trends do not bode well for the PCs.
One recent survey taken before Friday’s announcements by EKOS Research — which tends to report better numbers for the PCs than other polling firms — said the PCs’ lead over the Liberals dropping from a high of 13 points at the height of pandemic to just five points now.
Return to pre-pandemic problems?
Pre-pandemic times might feel like ancient history now, but it has been only a little over a year since the Ford government was one of the most unpopular in Canada.
At the end of 2019, Abacus Data reported that just 20 per cent of Ontarians had a positive impression of Ford, while between 62 and 63 per cent held a negative view. Other pollsters found similarly bleak numbers for the Ontario premier.
For most of 2019, the PCs were polling between 30 and 35 per cent as they hovered above a divided opposition, with the Liberals and NDP generally polling in the high-20s.
The pandemic boosted those PC numbers to over 40 per cent in some polls, but the recent slide suggests the surge in support for Ford and the PCs caused by the government’s early handling of the pandemic is at risk of disappearing entirely if Ontarians conclude that the government is incompetent.
That is, after all, what the public opinion consensus was after Ford had been in office for about 18 months.
The PCs would be in deeper trouble now if the opposition parties were better positioned to take advantage of the situation.
As it stands, both NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca can boast of only middling approval ratings. Neither leader has improved personal numbers to any significant degree during the pandemic.
But this past week could prove to be a turning point. While the voting intention numbers haven’t moved much, IRG has recorded that Ford’s advantage over Horwath on who Ontarians prefer as premier fell from nine points before Friday’s announcement to just three points since.
The pandemic gave Ford’s troubled government a chance at a new start. Right now, it looks like that second chance has been squandered. This past week reminded Ontarians of the Doug Ford they once didn’t like.