On August 8th, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned as the President of the United States, twenty-six months after the infamous Watergate Scandal began with the break in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. On the day of his resignation, the Pew Research Center polled Nixon’s approval rating at a mere 24%. That had to be a record-low, right? Wrong.
Enter current Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne. After being elected in 2013 as the Leader of the Liberal Party of Ontario, her approval ratings plummeted to 12% in March of 2017 (a tenure low), according to the Angus Reid Institute. Since then, her approval ratings have ever so slightly increased to the high-teens, but it will not be enough to take down the controversial and newly-minted Leader of the Progressive Conservatives (PC), Doug Ford.
“Referendum elections” are extremely rare in Canada. For one to occur, there has to be a singular issue or topic that overwhelmingly consumes the whole election cycle — whereby voters exercise their vote in a binary fashion, predicated on a single, all-encompassing issue.
Since then, her approval ratings have ever so slightly increased to the high-teens, but it will not be enough to take down the controversial and newly-minted Leader of the Progressive Conservatives (PC), Doug Ford.
The 1988 Federal election is a prime illustration of a referendum election, where the overwhelming issue at hand was the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA). In government were the Federal Progressive Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney. Prior to the election the PCs had negotiated and signed the agreement with the Americans; however, there was a nation-wide divide on the agreement, with the two main opposition parties strictly opposed it. Thus, the only way the PCs could legitimately implement the CUSFTA was via a mandate given to them by an election victory. If the PCs were re-elected, even with a diminished majority, this would suggest that the “people had spoken” and at least a plurality of Canadians approved of the CUSFTA. By the same vein, if the PCs were ousted from office, the opposing opinion would have likely prevailed and the CUSFTA would have been killed.
Fast forward 30 years, Ontarians are now facing a referendum election of their own. The critical issue will not be carbon-taxing, the divisive sex-education curriculum, or the sky-high provincial debt (attributable to 15 years of Liberal government, of course). Rather, the election’s discourse and primary issue will be dominated by the following question: “How much do you despise Kathleen Wynne?” If we were to take the most recent polling data from DART Insight, as of March 7th 2018, 81% of Ontarians would say that they do not like Wynne and would not vote for Wynne and her party on election day.
Over the weekend of March 10th, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario — in what felt like a circus of a leadership race — elected a new Leader. The newly elected Leader, Doug Ford, is the brother of the late, troubled Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford, and is a former one-term Toronto City Councillor.
There is much to be said and analyzed about Doug Ford, not the least of which is how he beat out two incredibly capable and competent women with prominent careers and family ties to the political establishment. Since the election, the Canadian media has already gone on a roller-coaster joy ride, resurfacing old media-clips, proclaiming ramped comparisons to Trump, and throwing the word populism around as much as Canadians say “sorry”. While my opinion on the Canadian media is neither here nor there, what is of note is that despite all of the comparisons to Trump (which are fallacious), not to mention the resurfacing of unappealing pictures pertaining to the Ford brothers, it honestly might not matter.
While my opinion on the Canadian media is neither here nor there, what is of note is that despite all of the comparisons to Trump (which are fallacious), not to mention the resurfacing of unappealing pictures pertaining to the Ford brothers, it honestly might not matter.
It is no surprise that party leaders in Canada are of such high political importance that they easily make or break an election, as Canada has a leader-centric system of governance. Moreover, Canadian electoral behaviour scholars claim that the “Fallen Hero Phenomenon” exists in Canada: that is, regardless of the political party and initial approval ratings, as a leader continues in office for more and more terms, their approval ratings — and thus their future electoral prospects — will inevitably fall. It is also widely accepted in modern liberal democracies that much of the electorate is ignorant and uninterested in the policy aspect of politics, and thus use heuristics and short-cuts to cast their vote.
The easiest shortcut of all is to evaluate the Leader of the Party by either using the “like-me” test, whereby a voter asks themselves if “the leader is like me” both in socio-economic, and physical dimensions. Or by an evaluation of the likeability of the respective Leader’s personality.
Thus, as much as I would have loved to see the PCs win the election through their own merit, it is very likely that Wynne and her Liberals will simply beat themselves — all thanks to Wynne’s inability to be liked.
Come June 2018, Ontarians will head to the polls and elect a new Government — not on the merits of their policies, issues of the day, or other electoral influencers, but rather on a leader litmus test as the ultimate determinant. If this occurs, Kathleen will not wynne and Doug Ford, with all of his rough edges and flaws, will mozie his way on over from Etobicoke to Queen’s Park and become the next Premier of Ontario.