The Ford government has kept a close eye on how Ontarians feel about its response to COVID-19 by steadily commissioning opinion polls on pandemic-related topics.
Documents obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request reveal that the provincial cabinet office was getting polling reports as often as weekly through 2020.
The results of the surveys suggest that overall support for the government’s handling of COVID-19 dwindled as the pandemic’s second wave built in Ontario last fall.
CBC News obtained 35 polling reports spanning a period from March 2020 until January 2021.
“Compared to last spring, Ontarians are much more likely to believe that the government has not moved quickly enough to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said the most recent polling report obtained, dated Jan. 8.
“There has been steady increase in the perception that the government ‘could have acted differently’ in dealing with the pandemic,” the report continued.
The numbers behind that analysis showed a particularly striking change late last year.
The percentage of respondents saying the government was doing a good or excellent job of handling the second wave dropped sharply in the space of just a few weeks. It was 51 per cent in early November, then bottomed out at 32 per cent in mid-December.
On a similar question about managing the pandemic, opinion was evenly split In the second week of November, with 47 per cent of respondents saying the government “has done all it can reasonably be expected to do,” while 49 per cent said the government “could have acted differently.”
By the end of December, the number saying the government could have acted differently had shot up to 67 per cent, more than double the 31 per cent saying the government did all that could be expected.
in the late December polling, 60 per cent of respondents said the provincial government had not moved as quickly as it could to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. Polling in May 2020 put that figure at 40 per cent.
All the polling was conducted by research firm The Strategic Counsel. The company declined a CBC News request for an interview to provide context on the findings.
“Polling is a common tool that all governments use to get a better understanding of the public’s opinion on important policy issues facing the province,” said Ford’s director of media relations, Ivana Yelich, in an email to CBC News.
The polling was extensive and the questions on COVID-19 were wide-ranging, said Sam Andrey, director of policy and research at the Ryerson Leadership Lab, a think-tank at Torronto’s Ryerson University focused on public policy and democratic engagement.
“You can tell that [the government is] paying close attention to how the public feels about the various measures that they’re taking through the COVID pandemic, which I think is a good thing,” said Andrey in an interview. .
He said it’s extremely important for governments to have the public’s confidence during a crisis, and polling is a way to monitor that.
“You want to make sure that as you’re making decisions, that that confidence is holding,” said Andrey.
What’s less clear is how the findings influenced the government’s decisions.
“I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say that this government has clearly been following public opinion closely, and many people have said they were acting too late because they were waiting for the public mood to reach a breaking point,” Andrey said.
He pointed to one particular polling question that he believes may have prompted the government to delay a province-wide lockdown.
Respondents were asked which of the following views best reflects their own:
- Some people say that Ontario will have to go back to a severe lockdown in all regions, even if this significantly damages the economy.
- Other people say, we should deal with it by outbreak on a community-by-community basis, and not province wide so the economic recovery can continue, even if there is a risk of more infections.
Support for the “severe lockdown in all regions” averaged 33 per cent over the course of the fall, and never exceeded 40 per cent in any of the weekly polls.
Andrey believes the question was somewhat leading, making the respondents more likely to say they oppose a province-wide lockdown.
“I do wonder, if that was a key metric that [the government was] using, if that influenced how they proceeded,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t want a government to only do what’s popular and not what is needed at the time.”
The government has yet to publish what it spent on polling in 2020-21. Publicly available figures show the provincial Treasury Board paid The Strategic Counsel $499,422 in the 2019-20 fiscal year, before the bulk of the COVID-19 polling was conducted.
The reports track the results of one particular polling question since 2018, when the Ford government took office: “Overall, do you feel that the Ontario provincial government is on the right track or the wrong track, in terms of how it is governing the province?”
That polling shows how the government’s “wrong track” numbers rose steadily through 2019, hitting around 60 per cent in early 2020, then dropped way down to 20 per cent after the pandemic hit.
In January 2021, the polls found that one-third of those surveyed believed the government was on the wrong track and two-thirds on the right track.
The polling was commissioned by the Ontario Cabinet Office and conducted by The Strategic Counsel. The polling firm said each monthly poll reached 1,200 respondents by telephone, randomly and proportionately selected from across Ontario, using mobiles (60%) and landlines (40%). The results have a margin of error of ± 2.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The results were reported to the government as frequently as weekly, broken down into rolling samples of 300 respondents each week.
Other notable findings in the polling:
- The Jan. 8 polling report showed overwhelming support (85 per cent in favour) of the government’s province-wide lockdown measures that took effect in Ontario on Boxing Day, while just 13 per cent called it an overreaction.
- Roughly 75 to 80 per cent of those surveyed in repeated polls through the fall disagreed with the idea that COVID-19 is not a serious public health issue.
- About half of those surveyed over the course of last fall said they believed the impact of public health restrictions on jobs, business and mental health was “worse than the number of deaths and serious illness caused by COVID-19,” while the percentage who disagreed with that statement ranged from 27 per cent to 49 per cent during different polling periods.