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Newly elected Liberal Party leader Kathleen Wynne is speaks to media in Toronto, Ont. Saturday, January 26, 2013. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Newly elected Liberal Party leader Kathleen Wynne is speaks to media in Toronto, Ont. Saturday, January 26, 2013. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Ontario Liberals up in polls since Wynne won, but election a gamble Add to ...

The electoral prospects of the Ontario Liberals have improved under Kathleen Wynne, as MPPs return to work at Queen’s Park this week. But the margins are incredibly slim, meaning the fall of her minority government could be a gamble for any of the three leaders in Ontario.

The Progressive Conservatives and Liberals are effectively tied in support, based on the latest averaging of polls conducted mostly after the OLP leadership convention. The two parties have 31 per cent support in the province, with the New Democrats trailing at 29 per cent.

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The gap between the three parties is exceptionally close, and in the three polls released since Ms. Wynne became leader of the Liberals her party has led in two and placed third in one of them.

This is a significant change in fortunes for the Ontario Liberals. At the end of October, two weeks after Dalton McGuinty had announced he would be stepping down as party leader and Premier, the Liberals were averaging 26 per cent support, compared to 35 per cent for the Tories and 32 per cent for the NDP. Since then, and now under a new leader, the Liberals have increased their support by five points, drawing new voters from both the PCs and NDP.

Liberals dominate in Toronto

With their highly concentrated support in Toronto, the Liberals would be able to produce more seats out of the same amount of votes as the Progressive Conservatives. They would likely win 43 seats (down eight from their current standing in the Legislative Assembly), with the Tories winning 36 and the New Democrats increasing their total by 10 seats to 28. That is in sharp contrast to the near-majority scenario that the PCs could have pulled off in October.

But the outcome of such a close vote is far from predictable. If an election were held today, the odds that modeling error, polling inaccuracy, and/or a last minute swing in support could drop the Liberals to second or third place in the seat count are about one-in-three. The seat projection model identifies 16 ridings that could be decided by as little as three percentage points – depending on how those seats would vote, the PCs could win a minority government or the three parties could be deadlocked in a near tie.

The Liberal edge is very fragile, however, as a majority of those tight races are Liberal-held seats. Their vote has retreated significantly in every region of the province, with the effect being most consequential in southwestern and northern Ontario, where the New Democrats make most of their gains.

The Liberals are still the first choice of Torontonians, however. It is the one region in which the Liberals lead, with 40 per cent to 30 per cent for the New Democrats and 22 per cent for the Progressive Conservatives. But that is a seven-point drop for the Liberals since the 2011 election, much of which has gone to the NDP.

PCs gaining ground in GTA

The Tories have moved ahead in the Greater Toronto Area. Though they have dropped three points in the region since the election, they nevertheless are in front with 35 per cent to 31 per cent for the Liberals (a drop of 10 points) and 25 per cent for the New Democrats. The Liberal vote is more efficient, however, and they would take the majority of seats in the GTA.

The Progressive Conservatives also lead in eastern and southwestern Ontario, with 38 and 34 per cent support, respectively. But whereas the Liberals are their main opponent in the east with 32 per cent (and most of the Ottawa-area seats), the NDP is running a close second in the southwest with 30 per cent. That puts them in a strong position to sweep Windsor.

The New Democrats have leads of their own in the Hamilton and Niagara region (43 per cent to 26 per cent for the Tories) and in northern Ontario (36 per cent to 26 per cent for the PCs). In fact, the NDP has made gains in every region of the province, with their largest increases coming in Hamilton/Niagara (11 points) and in the GTA (nine points).

That newfound NDP support is perhaps the most important wildcard. While early numbers show that Ms. Wynne has decent personal approval ratings, Andrea Horwath remains the most popular leader of the three. But new voters can be more unpredictable in their distribution and their reliability at the ballot box. There is also the novelty of Ms. Wynne: support for the Liberals might be more liable to swing as the new Premier becomes better known. And though Tim Hudak has been unable to move the dial in his favour since 2011, the lessons learned on the campaign trail that year may pay dividends when he returns to the hustings.

With a new sitting of the legislature about to begin, the Liberals have the inside track and a little momentum. But it will not take much for one of the other parties to knock the Premier off her stride and put themselves at the head of the race.

ThreeHundredEight.com’s vote projection model aggregates all publicly released polls, weighing them by sample size, date, and the polling firm’s accuracy record. The seat projection model makes individual projections for all 107 ridings in the province, based on the regional shifts in support since the 2011 election. Projections are subject to the margins of error of the opinion polls included in the model, as well as the unpredictable nature of politics at the riding level.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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