You may have figured a global pandemic that upended Ontario businesses, schools and health care for two years, infected millions and led to the deaths of 13,000 people would totally dominate the provincial election campaign. But you’d be wrong. 

While PC Leader Doug Ford’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic during his term as premier undoubtedly factors in to how a lot of voters plan to cast their ballots, all publicly available polling shows the largest number of Ontarians naming cost of living and affordability issues as top of mind.

There’s also polling evidence that a portion of the electorate views Ford’s performance during the pandemic as a reason to vote for his party, not against it.

The question that remains for June 2 is whether those voters are numerous enough to propel Ford and his party to another majority.   

Pollster Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research Group, had identified a key segment of voters who say they do not consider themselves as Progressive Conservatives, but approve of Ford and the way he came across during the pandemic, and intend to vote PC. 

“That’s where the Tory lead is coming from, which is ironic,” said Lyle in an interview. “In the last election the Tories won despite Doug Ford. In this election — if they win — they’ll win because of Doug Ford.”

Voters locked in to opinions on pandemic 

Research by Innovative and other polling firms does find a consistently sizeable chunk of Ontario’s population wanting a change of government, typically hovering near 60 per cent. For those voters, dissatisfaction with Ford’s handling of the pandemic is a common driving factor, the polling suggests. 

Tapping into that sentiment is clearly part of the strategy for Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in their efforts to deny Ford and his PCs a second term. 

At the same time, there’s a limit to how many voters Del Duca or Horwath can woo away from the PCs at this stage by focusing predominantly on the pandemic.

After two-plus years, views about Ford’s performance since COVID-19 hit Ontario have become so firmly entrenched that it’s hard to imagine what could be said or done now to change anyone’s mind on that particular front. 

“What people think about how COVID was handled, that’s already baked into where you’re going to sit as a voter,” said Anushka Kurian, a government relations associate at McMillan Vantage Policy Group. 

The voter base in Ontario is oversaturated by conversations about COVID-19 and pandemic-related issues, said Kurian in an interview.

Ford, Chief Medical Officer Kieran Moore (not pictured) and Health Minister Christine Elliott announce an easing of COVID-19 public health restrictions at a press conference on Jan. 20, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“COVID no longer feels like an emergency to a lot of Ontarians,” she said. “Now the conversation is moving forward: ‘Where are we going to go from here?'” 

Kurian acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, that COVID-19 is still circulating in Ontario and that health-care workers would say people need to remain vigilant, but says: “If you ask most Ontario voters, what feels like an emergency right now is affordability.” 

Liberals, NDP criticize Ford’s pandemic record

Still, the NDP and Liberals are trying their utmost to remind voters about some of what happened in the pandemic. 

“We’ve been critical all the way along around how Doug Ford made choices and decisions that hurt people,” said Horwath during a campaign-trail news conference in Kitchener. She said an NDP government would hold a public inquiry into the pandemic to make sure lessons are learned from what went well and what went wrong.

Del Duca says the Liberal platform is both “a clear repudiation of everything Doug Ford has done badly” and a road map for doing better. 

In the past few days alone, both Del Duca and Horwath have gone after Ford’s pandemic record on several fronts. 

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca presents his party’s platform at an event in Toronto on May 9. He has spent part of the campaign sharply criticizing Ford’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“Doug Ford basically lied about putting an iron ring around long-term care. He did the opposite,” said Horwath during a news conference Thursday in Brampton. 

“Doug Ford turned his back on working people and refused to provide the paid sick days they needed to help get them through the pandemic,” she said Wednesday at a news conference in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore.   

That same morning, Del Duca criticized the government’s 2020 decisions to allow big box retailers selling non-essential goods to remain open during lockdowns, while shutting small businesses. 

“Throughout this pandemic, when Doug Ford as premier had the chance to be on their side, all he dished out were empty words, empty rhetoric, while he continued to be on the side of big box retail and giant corporations,” said Del Duca.

On Thursday, he drew links between the toll that COVID-19 took on people living in long-term care and Ford’s plans for the sector. 

“What we have witnessed from Doug Ford over the past couple of years has been appalling in this regard,” said Del Duca. “The Ford Conservatives want to double down by continuing to give out contracts and licences and funding to for-profit long-term care, to continue to institutionalize seniors, when that’s not what our seniors deserve.” 

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath walks past her campaign bus after a tour of recent storm damage in Peterborough, Ont., on May 25. She has said that an NDP government would launch a public inquiry into the pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Horwath and Del Duca have plenty of other material to work with in challenging Ford’s pandemic management.

There was his decision to loosen restrictions in February 2021 before the second wave had subsided, despite warnings of the projected consequences.

A few weeks later, when the province was deep into the third wave, there was the much-pilloried (and quickly reversed) move to close playgrounds and give police extraordinary powers, followed soon after by Ford’s apology for what he called moving “too fast.” 

And then there’s Ontario’s pandemic record as the jurisdiction that closed schools more often than anywhere else in North America. In the government’s own polling over the past two years, parents with school-age kids have consistently given poorer ratings of the government’s performance than people without kids. 

When Ford was challenged during the two leaders’ debates on his handling of the pandemic, he responded both times by talking about how hard he worked.

“For two and a half years, literally 24/7, I was working on this pandemic,” said Ford during the debate on May 16, then went after Del Duca  “It’s easy to sit back from the sidelines — when you didn’t have to make the tough decisions I had to make — and criticize.”

WATCH | Doug Ford defends government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic:

Doug Ford defends Ontario’s response to COVID-19

After being accused of mishandling Ontario’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in favour of ‘rapidly’ reopening the province, Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford said it’s easier for leadership rivals to ‘criticize’ when they weren’t the ones making ‘tough decisions.’

During the northern Ontario debate on May 10, when moderator Markus Schwabe questioned Ford about his government’s performance during the pandemic, his response began: “There was a lot of challenges. We were going around the clock.” 

Pandemic ‘an extended job interview’

While Ford’s critics likely roll their eyes at this approach, both Kurian and Lyle see reasons why it would appeal to voters who aren’t firmly set against the PC leader. 

“Voters are likely going to be sympathetic to the fact that he showed up and did his job and was a leader at a podium every day through COVID,” said Kurian, who has been a Liberal campaign organizer. 

Lyle says the Doug Ford that is now being judged by voters is “a creation of the pandemic,” in large part a result of the image that he cultivated with his 200-plus televised appearances in the first year after COVID-19 hit Ontario. 

“There are lots of people that are unhappy with Doug Ford and unhappy with the way the government handled COVID, but it looks like there won’t be enough of those people to stop him [from winning the election],” said Lyle. 

“The whole two-year experience [of the pandemic] was an extended job interview with Doug Ford. For a significant chunk of the electorate, he passed. Maybe not with flying colours, but he passed.”