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How the ‘Doug Ford strategies’ are playing out in the election campaign

With voting day just a weekend away, there are questions about the effectiveness of the Liberal Party’s dominant campaign strategy in Ontario: invoking Premier Doug Ford to try to drag down Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.

CBC’s Poll Tracker data for Ontario suggests the tactics of Justin Trudeau’s party are working to some extent: the Conservatives have not come within three percentage points of the Liberals in the province at any time in the campaign, and are currently trailing by more than six points.

The Poll Tracker, which aggregates all publicly available polling data, currently projects the Liberals to win 66 seats in Ontario, while the Conservatives are projected to take 39, and the NDP 16.

While that seat count might sound like success for the Liberals if it happens on Monday, it would still be a drop from the 80 seats the party took in Ontario in 2015, helping propel Trudeau to his majority.

“I think they put too many chips on that strategy,” says Nick Kouvalis, a pollster and political strategist who has worked for a range of right-of-centre candidates at all levels of government.

“The Liberals have desperately tried, time after time, to make this election a fight between them and Ford,” said Kouvalis, principal of the firm Campaign Research, in an interview Thursday. “Ford’s eluded them by not engaging.”

Since before the campaign officially began, Trudeau has attempted to capitalize on Ford’s current unpopularity in Ontario, sometimes subtly, more often blatantly.

The party’s first campaign TV ad was on the subtle side. “Conservatives like to say they’re ‘For the People,’ but then they cut taxes for the wealthy and cut services for everybody else,” said Trudeau in the ad, alluding to Ford’s successful campaign slogan from last year’s provincial election.

On the blatant end of the spectrum: Trudeau mentioned Ford 14 times in just one news conference in Hamilton.

Kouvalis credits Scheer for “not taking the bait” from Trudeau.

This points to the Conservative Party’s own strategy about Ford: avoidance at virtually all costs. Ford has not campaigned for Scheer, let alone with him. Scheer has uttered Ford’s name in public just three times all campaign, which would be 11 fewer times than Trudeau did in that one news conference. According to Ford’s press secretary, the two most prominent conservative politicians in Canada have not met face-to-face in nearly a year.

It wasn’t always this way. In August of last year, Ford was greeted as a conquering hero at the federal Conservative party convention in Halifax, where he gave a keynote speech to thunderous applause. Scheer returned the favour at the Ontario PC party convention in Toronto last November.

But then came the Ford government’s controversies: the appointment of a Ford friend as Ontario Provincial Police commissioner, changes to services for children with autism, and a budget filled with cuts, including a significant rise in class sizes in Ontario high schools.

Scheer’s avoidance of Ford during the campaign is evidence confirming that the Liberals’ strategy was smart, said David Herle, a political consultant who has run Liberal Party campaigns at the federal and provincial level.

The Conservatives “obviously knew” that having Scheer tightly linked to Ford would hurt their party, so they went to great lengths to avoid it, said Herle, owner of the Gandalf Group communications consulting firm, in an interview Thursday.

That strategy in large part involved Ford nearly disappearing from public view as the election approached. In early June, Ford adjourned the provincial legislature until Oct. 28, taking him out of the question period spotlight until a week after election day.

During the campaign, Ford held just two news conferences: one on Sept. 17 in Verner, 400 kilometres north of Toronto, the other on Wednesday in Kenora, 1,500 kilometres northwest of Verner. In the nearly four months since he shuffled his cabinet, Ford has held just one news conference in the provincial capital.

In his news conferences, Ford has said he’s “too busy governing” to be involved in the campaign, although many of his cabinet ministers and MPPs have publicized their own campaigning efforts on behalf of federal Conservative candidates.

Herle credits Ford for being “surprisingly disciplined in staying out of the fray despite the attacks he was taking on an ongoing basis from the Liberals.” Still, Herle believes the Liberals will win the most seats in the province come election day, and believes the attacks on Ford have helped.

“You have to conclude, but for the existence of Mr. Ford, Scheer would likely do better in Ontario on Monday,” said Herle.

On this week’s episode of Herle’s election podcast, called The Herle Burly, another longtime Liberal strategist Scott Reid, urged the party to pull out all the stops to link Scheer to Ford in an attempt to make voters fear the effects of a Conservative government.

“You have to convince [voters] that if [Scheer] does win he would do horrible and terrifying things, which is why I’d associate him with Ford,” said Reid.

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