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Prime Minister Stephen Harper receives instruction from worker Robert Muraca as they tour a factory during a campaign visit to a factory in Brampton, March 30, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper receives instruction from worker Robert Muraca as they tour a factory during a campaign visit to a factory in Brampton, March 30, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Vote splitting aside, Tories dominant in Ontario Add to ...

Twenty Ontario ridings were newly claimed by Stephen Harper's party in Monday's election, paving the way to a majority government. And in every one of them, the combined Liberal and NDP votes outnumbered those for the winning candidate.

So, yes, even Conservatives will admit that vote splitting was a very big part of their path to a majority government. But contrary to the way many New Democrats and Liberals make it sound, it wasn't the only part.

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The Conservatives received 44 per cent of popular support in Ontario this election - up five points from 2008, and 13 points from 2004. And in each of the ridings they took from their opponents, they got thousands more votes than they did last time out.

The fact is, they're now Ontario's dominant federal party. And if they're able to capitalize on divisions among their opponents, it's because they've got a lot of other advantages over them, as well.

1.) They've built a coalition

Mr. Harper has not tried to win the hearts and minds of all - or even most - Ontarians. But he's managed to cobble together a collection of powerful voting blocs, most of which used to be in the Liberal camp.

Ethnic minorities are delivering large chunks of suburbia. Rock-solid Jewish support was pivotal in delivering two or three urban ridings. They've locked down enough rural voters to guarantee large chunks of Eastern and Southern Ontario.

These loyalties might not last forever. But the Conservatives show few signs of taking them for granted, which helped doom the Liberals' coalition.

2.) They speak to voters directly

The Conservatives' national communications during the campaign were frightfully dull. But at the local level, they were a little more compelling.

Through sophisticated voter profiling, they were able to narrowly identify which issues spoke to which constituents. So in targeted ridings, different households were getting very different pitches, the campaign literature highlighting policies and personalities meant to appeal to their specific preferences.

It's not the sort of collective appeal that brings communities (let alone the country) together. But in a province as diverse as Ontario, it can be effective.

3.) They have an identity

You might not like them, but at least you know who they are. While the Conservatives modify their pitch slightly from election to election, they've been the same party for a while now. That strikes a contrast to the Liberals, who have had a different leader and a different pitch in every recent campaign - causing some long-time supporters to flee in confusion.

Meanwhile, Mr. Harper has cultivated an image as a strong hand primarily concerned with economic management. It's debatable how well earned that is, but it's a big help in a province still nervous about its recovery from recession.

4.) They're not (as) scary

To some Ontarians, particularly in downtown Toronto, the Conservatives are still a hostile invading force, and Mr. Harper's penchant for antagonizing his critics hasn't helped. But he has also worked hard to smooth his party's rougher edges, which used to scare off far more voters.

In the campaign's final days, when the NDP burst into contention nationally, the Conservatives were able to play on bad memories of the Bob Rae era to lure some right-leaning Liberals into their tent. It was the manifestation of Mr. Harper's dream scenario, in which his party replaces the Liberals as the safest and most mainstream option.

5.) Their voters vote

It's not dumb luck that the Conservatives did better in Ontario than public opinion polls suggested they would. Get-out-the-vote campaigns proved not to matter much in Quebec, where the NDP won despite lacking much of a ground game. But in Ontario, they're seen as pivotal - and that works to the Tories' advantage.

Mr. Harper spends a lot of time keeping his base motivated. (Hence his disproportionate focus on law-and-order policies.) And for those who need to be dragged out to the polls, the Conservatives rely on a heavily centralized voter identification system that's proving more effective than the Liberals' reliance on local campaigns to do the heavy lifting. Other parties will catch up eventually, but for now, it's one of the many factors allowing the Conservatives to solidify their grip on the country's largest province.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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