Meanwhile Ms. Sorbara, a veteran political staffer with a reputation as a hard-driving taskmaster, whipped the party into shape organizationally. She switched it to the federal Liberalist database to help target potential supporters in swing ridings, and bought new software to scrape census data to feed into it.
As soon as Mr. Hudak made his pledge, the Liberals pounced.
“You can design a strategy… but you can never really hope your opponents will play their parts as well as they did,” Mr. Herle said. “We spent a lot of time thinking about how to suck these people into this trap. We didn’t expect them to walk into it.”
One particularly ominous ad showed members of a suburban family – including a little girl and her dog – literally vanishing one by one as a sombre announcer warned Mr. Hudak’s plan would force families out of the middle class. The unions piled on, too, filling the airwaves with dire warnings about the PC cuts.
Ms. Wynne set a frenetic pace on the campaign trail, packing in as many as seven events into 16-hour days. At her side was her partner, Jane Rounthwaite, and Andrew Bevan, her bookish principal secretary and a long-time friend. In contrast to Mr. Hudak’s strict message discipline, Ms. Wynne often improvised, giving long, complicated answers to questions. It broke the rules of political communications, but her advisers contend it added to her authenticity.
“She’s one of the most naturally gifted politicians I’ve ever met,” said Peter Donolo, who oversaw communications for the campaign. “Part of her appeal is that she comes from a different place than the typical, run-of-the-mill, overscripted politicians who speak in soundbites.”
The net effect was to show Ms. Wynne as an energetic, personable intellectual – the sort of leader who appeals to exactly the educated, middle-class demographic the party needed to win.
At every stop, the Premier warned Mr. Hudak’s cuts would damage public services. In her sharpest attack, she visited a water treatment centre in Walkerton, Ont. – where seven people died from drinking tainted water, a tragedy partly blamed on Mr. Harris’s cutbacks in the 1990s.
The Grits had to make a concerted effort to keep the message as serious as possible. On the day Ms. Wynne went to Walkerton, for instance, campaign staffers had started to joke that Mr. Hudak’s cuts could spell the end of Polkaroo – the beloved childrens’ show character on publicly funded TV Ontario. But Mr. Lopinski ordered the war room to keep a straight face.
“We could’ve gone nuts with Polkaroo, but then nobody would’ve heard about the hundred thousand,” he said.
His team did, however, allow itself to have fun on other matters. When economists pointed out a mathematical error in the Tories “million jobs” pledge, the Grits sent a staffer dressed as Sesame Street’s the Count to Mr. Hudak’s events.
It helped the Liberals that the NDP campaign failed to catch fire.
The party had been optimistic it could attract Liberals disaffected by the spending scandals. At the helm was Gissel Yanez, a seasoned strategist who had run both Ms. Horwath’s leadership campaign and her 2011 general election effort. The war room was led by Eoin Callan, a former journalist, while Jen Hassum ran the communications shop. They could also draw on a reserve of federal veterans, most notably Brian Topp, for advice.
But Ms. Horwath received little attention during the first two weeks of the campaign, unveiling a series of populist pledges while Mr. Hudak and Ms. Wynne dominated the agenda.
New Democrat strategists watched Mr. Hudak’s 100,000 job cuts pledge in horror: The announcement turned the focus of the campaign away from Liberal scandals by putting it on the PCs. Meanwhile, Ms. Wynne’s attacks on Ms. Horwath for rejecting a left-tilting budget resonated with Toronto voters.
Partway through the campaign, the party retooled. Ms. Horwath went on the attack, labelling the Liberals “corrupt” and pressing Ms. Wynne hard during the debate.