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

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 disappointment 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 kilometers west of Toronto, the Liberals recruited Olympic gold medalist van Koeverden to try and top a former cabinet minister, leadership contender, deputy leader and all-around political giant.

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

Repeated stops

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

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

But the fact that the Liberals bought 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 the 905, in the semi-rural, quasi-urban Ontario that were there 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 as projected long ago, "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 electoral gains in the province?

When Raitt was asked the question, she simply said, "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 played 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 against the government that's in Ottawa, she said.

"There's a natural balance that happens."

But Alboim said he thinks other factors are at play, such as the "NDP collapse" in Ontario and the Greens' failure 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 maintain the status quo."

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

According to a Vote Compass survey, it may just have played a defining role. Nearly 25,000 respondents were asked whether Ford's Ontario policies 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 with Doug Ford I think would probably cost Mr. Scheer even more," Siemiatycki said.

"As eager as Mr. Trudeau was to talk 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 premiere's name 14 times (including twice in French).

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer appeared together on stage at the National Conservative Convention in Halifax last August. But the premiere 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 premiere.

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

"The Conservatives must have internal polls showing that it would be a liability for the party," Siemiatycki said.

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

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

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 have hit too hard "on the anti-Ford note."

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

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