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New mothers stand with their babies at a birthing centre in Toronto as they wait for Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath to arrive during her election campaign on Wednesday September 21, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young)
New mothers stand with their babies at a birthing centre in Toronto as they wait for Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath to arrive during her election campaign on Wednesday September 21, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young)

Ontario Election

Why Ontario Liberals are more worried about the NDP than Tories Add to ...

Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals are paying growing attention to a party they usually ignore.

No wonder. Two weeks before election day, Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats look like a bigger threat to them than Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives.

Mr. Hudak still stands the best chance of replacing Mr. McGuinty in the premier’s office. But many Liberals admitted heading into Ontario’s campaign that they’d have trouble staying in government if the NDP receives more than 20 per cent support. Conversely, Mr. Hudak’s campaign team has been almost openly cheering for Ms. Horwath, hoping for centre-left vote-splitting.

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The Tories still fret that Ms. Horwath is failing to make a strong impression – her performance too tentative, her share of daily media coverage too small. Nevertheless, most polls show the NDP in the low-to-mid 20s. While that support seems soft, revolving heavily around goodwill toward the late Jack Layton, the Liberals are justifiably worried about it hardening.

For months, New Democrats have predicted that the more people see of Ms. Horwath, the more they will like her. And to watch her on the road is to see why.

Ms. Horwath is not always comfortable responding to reporters’ questions. There are lots of “ums” and “uhs,” and her grip on policy details can seem shaky. But interacting with voters, she’s a natural. While Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Hudak are running bubble campaigns, she approaches complete strangers. And more often than not, her big smile and disarming down-to-earth manner endear her to them.

In the campaign’s second half, the NDP will try to use that charm to strike a contrast that could play particularly well with the Liberals’ predominantly female support base.

Ms. Horwath has a chance to be the big winner in next Tuesday’s leaders’ debate by presenting herself as a fresh face up against a pair of bickering boys. And the NDP’s communications are designed to hammer home that point. A new television ad shows three sets of legs; the men, in blue and red suits, impatiently tap their feet waiting for their turn to govern, while the woman between them (in orange heels, naturally) stands calmly.

To strike back, the Liberals are making a somewhat contradictory case under what a senior Liberal called an “umbrella” message that the NDP is “not worth the risk.” They are telling more centrist voters that Ms. Horwath’s promise to raise corporate taxes would kill jobs. Meanwhile, they’re trying to soften the NDP’s base by suggesting her emphasis on pocketbook policies rather than core principles such as environmentalism and social justice means she’s sold out.

The Liberals are also griping that Ms. Horwath is getting a free ride on her vision for the province – and they have a point.

Halfway through the campaign, the NDP still has not put forward a costing document to explain how it would pay for spending commitments it keeps making. Some of Ms. Horwath’s promises, such as a tax credit for any employer who creates a new job, seem to have been invented on the fly. And the economic implications of others, including a protectionist “Ontario first” policy, have largely been overlooked.

But this year’s federal campaign showed the NDP need not overwhelm with policies to win votes. The advantage of traditionally being far from government is an opportunity to offer “change” without anyone thinking too hard about what it would be.

The bigger check on its prospects, barring a wave like the one Mr. Layton rode in Quebec, will be organization. With voter turnout potentially reaching historic lows, half the battle is identifying supporters and getting them to vote. Outside of a few target ridings, the NDP can’t compete with the other parties on that front. So on election day, it will likely finish at least a couple of points below its level of support in the polls.

But if that support remains steady for the next two weeks, let alone grows, it will still probably be high enough to block Mr. McGuinty’s path to another majority government; perhaps to any government at all. The decline of the federal Liberals, recall, had more to do with support bleeding left than right. Aiming to avoid a similar fate, the provincial Liberals will pull out all the stops.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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