Liberal sources, however, say the debate was not as bad for them as it was generally perceived. A focus group set up to provide instantaneous reaction, for instance, constantly twisted their dials negative whenever Mr. Hudak began speaking, they said, but gave Ms. Wynne high marks.
Then, the OPP bombshell dropped and the Liberals seemed in jeopardy. As the clock ticked down, Ms. Wynne made her final mad dash.
Early on election day, things looked good to Mr. Robertson. Initial updates from party scrutineers at the polling stations showed strong voter turnout in Tory-friendly areas. As the day wore on, however, he noticed another trend: A lot of people in Liberal strongholds were also coming to vote.
“Our people were turning out,” he said. “But the Liberals and unions were being very successful in turning out even more of their people.”
That sealed Ms. Wynne’s victory. In trying to motivate his base with unabashedly right-wing policies, Mr. Hudak has inadvertently motivated the Liberals’ significantly more.
As her supporters filled an underground ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto, Ms. Wynne watched the results upstairs with her parents, children and three small grandchildren.
“In an election that close, it would have been impossible for me to know. It was going to depend on who came out to vote,” she said.
Partway through the count, she walked down the hall to a conference room where her staff had gathered. She was nervous, a source in the room said, reluctant to believe how well things were going. When it was finally clear she had won, campaign co-chair Tim Murphy and Elly Alboim, who worked with Ms. Wynne for over a year on debate preparation, turned to her to offer congratulations: “You’re the premier,” they said.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. The Liberals beat the Tories by more than 7 per cent of the popular vote, winning 58 of 107 seats.
For all the strategizing and organizational work – not to mention Mr. Hudak’s polarizing pledge – Mr. Herle contends one person deserves ultimate credit for that result. “We won because of Kathleen Wynne. That’s fundamentally what I believe to be true,” he said. “She’s a strong, ambitious person.”
Around 11 p.m., Ms. Wynne entered the ballroom amid a crush of supporters. As she stood at the podium, their cheers drowned her out.
“Whoa!” she said. “We did this.”
With a report from Adam Radwanski