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PC leader Doug Ford is surrounded by people waiting to take selfies or say hello, after attending an event with local candidate Gila Martow at the Promenade Mall in Thornhill, Ont. on June 5 2018.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It started with Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown being ousted in the middle of the night amid sexual-misconduct allegations. It’s ending with his replacement facing a lawsuit from within his own family. Along the way there has been a surge by the third-party New Democrats, a collapse of the governing Liberals culminating in leader Kathleen Wynne delivering an early concession and a new candidate controversy seemingly every day.

Now, after what has to be the strangest run-up to a provincial election Ontario has ever seen, polls suggest that Doug Ford’s PCs and Andrea Horwath’s NDP are in a dead heat in terms of popular support heading into Thursday’s vote.

And more: Ontario election guide: What you need to know before you vote

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But it’s more volatile than that. There is a decent prospect that the Tories will win the legislative majority that seemed theirs for the taking at the outset – and also that they won’t even win a minority, with the NDP pulling off a stunning victory. The Liberals, at risk of losing every single seat, could also take enough ridings to hold the balance of power.

An array of variables, which no poll can fully capture, could determine what Ontarians wake up to on Friday morning.

Turnout

Voter turnout in recent Ontario elections has hovered around 50 per cent. It has the potential to be even lower this time, given how many voters are unenthused by the options before them.

The more voters are tempted to stay home, the more a campaign can be determined by which party is able to drag them out.

That’s one reason the Tories are projected by some pollsters and insiders to have a good shot at a majority: Their base, comprised heavily of older voters – who are likelier to cast ballots than younger ones – is typically the most committed of all the parties’.

But the NDP may have a counterbalancing advantage: the most people knocking on doors on election day, largely owing to stronger support from organized labour in this campaign than previous ones. Combine that with less nose-holding around Ms. Horwath than Mr. Ford and usual assumptions about relative enthusiasm could go out the window.

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Geography

Another reason the Tories are often predicted to outperform their poll numbers: Their support seems to be spread across the greatest number of ridings, especially suburban battlegrounds, where elections in Ontario tend to be won.

If they win a majority, it will likely be by holding most of their current (predominantly small-town and rural) seats, picking up a few in Eastern Ontario and Toronto – and virtually sweeping the 905 belt around Toronto, along with chunks of inner districts such as Etobicoke and North York. Given the NDP’s relative weakness in suburbia, that’s not far-fetched.

But as the Tories hope for a suburban wave, the NDP could see one across Southwestern Ontario, where it may be able to take not just Liberal seats, but some held by the PCs, in towns such as Kitchener and Sarnia. If the NDP also sweeps Northern Ontario and makes gains in downtown Toronto and the outer areas where it’s strongest (Scarborough and suburban Brampton), its vote may prove efficient after all.

Vote-splitting

Yet another explanation for why the Tories could win lots of seats: vote-splitting on the centre-left. The Liberal vote may have plummeted, but with polls showing it still at or above 20 per cent, it may remain high enough to let a good number of PC candidates squeak through with narrow margins.

The Liberal vote may collapse further in the campaign’s final moments, as voters who dislike Mr. Ford rally around the NDP. That would mostly be bad news for the Tories, although it could help them in some suburban ridings where Liberals remain their main competition.

Or maybe Ms. Wynne’s new plea to vote Liberal to avoid either other party winning a majority will cause the Liberal vote to tick up slightly. If so it could preserve a few Liberal seats – or help the PCs in ridings where the NDP is their obstacle.

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If this seems confusing, that’s often a problem with strategic voting pushes, which is why they occasionally produce unintended outcomes.

Incumbency advantages

Received wisdom suggests that only a very small number of voters decide based on local candidates. But given the level of discomfort in this campaign with the leaders or parties, could a strong riding-level nominee make more of a difference than usual?

The Liberals hope so. They have the most unpopular leader, but also the most incumbents. Other than a couple of strongholds that may stay Liberal based on party brand, their best hope of keeping seats rests on a few MPPs who have built strong local profiles and organizations over the years.

Ms. Wynne’s unusual acknowledgement that she will no longer be premier was aimed at freeing those candidates to run more on their own merits. Whether it works could determine whether the Liberals win enough seats to keep official party status – and whether another party has enough for a majority.

The Ford factor

There’s no understating how unusual a party leader Mr. Ford is – with his populist personal brand, his disinterest in the intricacies of provincial government, the constant drama that swirls around him. And that could contribute to last-minute surprises, in either direction.

It’s possible voters who have been planning to vote PC won’t quite be able to bring themselves to do so; for some, the lawsuit filed by his brother’s widow alleging (among other things) mismanagement of the family business could prove the final straw, too late for polls to capture.

But he is also the sort of politician who could benefit from “shy” voters – those reluctant to tell pollsters they support him, because it feels socially unacceptable, but willing to do so in the voting booth.

The other variables play out, in some form, in most Ontario campaigns. This one is all its own.

Follow three Ontario MPP candidates as they canvas their ridings, talking to voters about the issues that matter to them the most. The Globe and Mail
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