A late momentum swing has changed the dynamics of Ontario’s election campaign, sources in both of the province’s two leading parties say.
Liberals and Progressive Conservatives confirm that their private opinion research showed the same phenomenon as some publicly available polls – a shift of support late last week away from Kathleen Wynne’s party, primarily benefitting Tim Hudak’s.
Where the Liberals and Tories part ways is in their perception of where they now stand. Both parties appear to genuinely believe they are on track to win minority government.
The sources agreed that the shift was driven mostly by last Tuesday’s leaders’ debate, in which Ms. Wynne took a battering from Mr. Hudak and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath on the Liberals’ ethics record, and by last Thursday’s update from the Ontario Provincial Police on its investigation into events in the Premier’s office shortly before Ms. Wynne took over from Dalton McGuinty.
For the PCs, the effect is an upswing in optimism from a couple of weeks ago, when morale was showing signs of sagging as Mr. Hudak struggled to defend his mathematically challenged promise to create one million new jobs, and his vow to trim 100,000 jobs from the broader public sector.
The Liberals’ expectations, meanwhile, have come down a little. Heading into the debate, many of them were daring to speculate about returning to majority government. But that was before a wave of the sort of unwanted attention they had mostly been spared through the campaign’s first four weeks.
Members of Ms. Wynne’s campaign team were expecting the other parties to devote most of their time at the outset of the campaign to highlighting the Liberals’ baggage, notably the gas-plants scandal that triggered the police investigation, and were pleasantly surprised when that didn’t happen. They were then braced for an onslaught of attacks on their ethics record when an advertising blackout lifted two weeks into the campaign, but that did not really materialize either.
What the Liberals were not as ready for was scandal dominating the news cycle in the campaign’s final stretch. Ms. Wynne appeared ill-prepared for the aggressiveness of the attacks from Mr. Hudak and Ms. Horwath during the debate’s very first question, and her party was caught off guard by the return of the OPP story. The Liberals have additionally suffered for an array of fresh controversies highlighted by their opponents, including their government’s planned bailout of the MaRS research and innovation hub in downtown Toronto.
The ensuing dip in their polling numbers helps explain why the Liberals grew more aggressive in their efforts to rally left-of-centre voters behind them. In recent days, Ms. Wynne has made an open call to NDP supporters to give her party their votes to stop Mr. Hudak, warning that among other things his government-slashing agenda would “put kids at risk.” Meanwhile, she has called Ms. Horwath’s populist platform “incoherent,” going so far as to liken the NDP Leader to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.
On Monday, Liberal sources appeared hopeful those efforts had helped stopped the bleeding. They also suggested that, as a post-debate survey for The Globe and Mail by Innovative Research Group suggested, an unintended consequence of Mr. Hudak’s strong performance may have been to open up more New Democrats to voting Liberal to stop him.
Along with the Tories, however, the Liberals acknowledged a strong degree of uncertainty about how votes will break down on Thursday. They are struggling in particular to gauge the suburban ridings around Toronto – a pivotal battleground that will likely decide the next government, but one where low levels of voter engagement make the results especially difficult to anticipate.
Despite the recent shift, the parties have consistently assessed that the results will come down to mobilization – specifically whether Ms. Wynne will be able to motivate enough voters to come out in opposition to a PC base energized by Mr. Hudak’s staunchly conservative platform, and augmented by some swing voters he appeared to win over last week.