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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. (PETER POWER AND DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. (PETER POWER AND DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why the Ontario election campaign is a mystery, even to those involved Add to ...

Roughly halfway through Ontario’s election, nobody really has much idea how it is playing out.

That is not an easy thing for those who live and breathe it to admit. There is usually a degree of false certainty in assessments – from party operatives, from pollsters, from columnists – of a campaign’s narrative while it is under way. Still, by this point in most past elections, they could be offered with at least a little more confidence than in this one.

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Both Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals and Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives seem to feel they’re executing their game plans effectively, and that the race is theirs to win. Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats, who have struggled for attention, appear a little less confident. But they’re all clearly uncertain about the race’s dynamics, and in the dark about where it’s headed.

That’s partly because of a prevailing sense that, despite a vigorous debate between the Liberals and Tories about whether the province should turn left or right, few Ontarians have been paying attention. It’s all but impossible to scientifically measure voter engagement before election day, because people who are really unengaged tend not to respond to surveys. But reports from candidates and their teams who are out knocking on doors indicate that even fewer voters than usual are aware there is an election on, let alone have strong impressions of how it’s playing out.

That’s especially the case in the suburban ridings of the Greater Toronto Area, generally considered Ontario’s most important electoral battleground, where the commuter-heavy population is particularly difficult to make contact with. There is an expectation that the deluge of campaign advertising since a blackout lifted last Wednesday, combined with the June 3 leaders’ debate, will cause more people to tune in as the June 12 election draws closer. But it’s hard to say how they’ll react if and when they do.

In measuring voting intentions of people who are paying attention, contradictions in public-opinion research add to the confusion. Polling companies are struggling to adapt to an era in which most people can’t easily be reached by home phone, and different methods of dealing with that are producing wildly varying results.

Depending on whose numbers one goes by, the Liberals’ popular support may be as high as 42 per cent or as low as 31 per cent. Polls are roughly split as to whether they or the Tories are in the lead, with the only constant that the New Democrats are in third – and whether that’s a competitive third or a distant one isn’t entirely clear either.

Beyond the horse-race numbers, there are some underlying trends that are entirely worth monitoring. But how some viewpoints will interact with others, and what result they will produce, are anyone’s guess.

There’s no question, for instance, that as evidenced by Friday’s angry letter from 34 former New Democratic stalwarts, Ms. Horwath has alienated some of her party’s base with her shift toward populism. But that clearly hasn’t been her target audience, and while the backlash could cost some of her downtown Toronto MPPs their seats, it might not matter in the Southwestern Ontario ridings she’s targeting; conceivably it could even help there.

There is also little doubt Mr. Hudak’s platform, which includes cutting 100,000 jobs from the province’s broader public sector, will help motivate conservatives to come out and vote. But it is very difficult to measure that impact relative to how much it will mobilize others to vote against him, or cause people who might otherwise be ready for a change in government to rally behind the Liberals.

Then there are the uncertainties about what campaign Ontarians will see the rest of the way. Just as the pollsters are trying to adjust to the difficulty of reaching people the way they used to, so too are the parties. Amid experimentation with online and other less traditional forms of advertising, nobody is quite sure what will break through; neither is it obvious whose efforts to use data to micro-target voters in ground campaigns will work.

Almost any result still being possible is one of the things making this a more compelling campaign than many Ontarians seem to think. As they start taking more interest, they should just know that any certainties they hear expressed are even more suspect than usual.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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