Kathleen Wynne's rhetoric has reached a fever pitch as she warns of the horrors of a Tim Hudak government. Mr. Hudak is trying to project calm optimism, speaking of better days ahead if he triumphs. Andrea Horwath is defiantly cheery, even though there is a widespread sense her campaign never got off the ground.
Despite the variation in their leaders' tones, the efforts of the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats alike have a frantic quality in the Ontario election campaign's final days – a flurry of negative ads and war-room stunts, with the Tories dredging up every last bit of Liberal scandal they can find and Ms. Wynne's party accusing the Tories of sending misleading information about election day to Liberal supporters to suppress their votes.
Given the high stakes for a province with huge economic and fiscal challenges, and the difficulty of engaging the electorate even though the Liberals and Tories in particular offer very different visions for the future, the mad scramble is somewhat fitting. But it is at least as much about the stakes for the parties themselves, each of which will face a reckoning if it does not get the results it wants on Thursday.
Of the three leaders, Mr. Hudak is the one who is all but certain to step aside if his party does not become the government. That would leave the Tories holding their fourth leadership contest since they last won an election, with no obvious successor.
The PCs' soul-searching would go beyond trying to find a new face. Opinion research shows that the share of Ontario's electorate willing to vote for them has significantly shrunk since the 1990s. The Tories have responded by running a stridently conservative campaign aimed at giving them the most motivated and mobilized support base of the three parties. If that falls short, it may have narrowed their appeal even further.
Unlike Mr. Hudak, Ms. Wynne will not necessarily be expected to step down if her party loses. Setting aside her nervous performance in last week's debate, most Liberals seem to credit her for at least giving them a fighting chance after inheriting an incredible mess from Dalton McGuinty. In the event of a tenuous PC minority government, many would be happiest to leave her at their helm.
But notwithstanding that potential short-term stability, they do not have to look far to see what could happen if they lose power after holding it for more than a decade.
The Liberals know that, like their federal cousins, they could face a prolonged stint in the wilderness. A minority government might allow Mr. Hudak, like Stephen Harper, to gain more trust gradually from voters; it would also enable the Tories to launch a circus-like inquiry into the gas-plants scandal that would further damage the Liberal brand.
Ms. Wynne's party, too, would have to worry that running from further left than usual may have alienated some business Liberals and shrunk its pool of voters.
Meanwhile, having been reduced mostly to Toronto-area seats, the Liberals would not be able to count on the provincial adoption of new federal riding boundaries – which will almost certainly happen if they win back government – to reduce that problem.
The New Democrats' barometer for success is not the same. If they add even a couple of seats to their existing 21, Ms. Horwath will declare victory. The problem is that with the Liberals making a strong pitch for their voters – and at least a couple of their downtown Toronto MPPs perceived to be in trouble, along with one or two caucus members who recently won by-elections – the NDP could lose ground.
If that happens, the party will face an identity crisis. The rather abrupt shift under Ms. Horwath toward pocketbook populism, with which many of its members were uncomfortable from the get-go, would be deemed a failure. New Democrats would then have to decide whether to try to return to their traditional values, presumably under a new leader.
An additional problem for the New Democrats after election day could be money; based on their inability to compete financially with the other parties during this campaign, they would be hard-pressed to afford another one soon. And the other party that winds up in opposition could have major fundraising challenges as well – a particular problem in a minority legislature that could fall at any time.
For the party that wins on Thursday, that could offer a bit of leeway actually to govern. The others might need time to sort through the consequences.