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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks at the Ontario Liberal Partyâs 2014 Heritage Dinner in Toronto, Thursday March 20, 2014

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

When Ontario's provincial budget is delivered on Thursday, the opposition leaders will need to make the difficult decision of whether to bring down the government and send voters to the polls. That decision will be made all the more difficult due to the fact that these parties might have little idea of where they currently stand with the electorate.

Five polls surveying the provincial voting intentions of Ontarians have been carried out and published so far in April, interviewing a total of almost 4,300 people either by telephone, interactive voice response or online.

The aggregate results suggest a close contest, as the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals have both averaged about 34 per cent support across the five polls. The New Democrats, with 25 per cent, trail in third. Were these results to be repeated on election day, the equivalent of a coin flip would determine whether the Tories or Liberals win more seats, with the NDP retaining the influential role of third-party status in the context of a minority government.

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But the polls have hardly formed a consensus on the state of the race in Ontario. Across those five polls, the Liberals have managed between 31 and 39 per cent support, while the PCs have registered between 27 and 38 per cent support. The potential for a PC or Liberal majority, or a minority government of either shade, exists within those bands. The New Democrats are more clearly in third place, with between 22 and 29 per cent support, but even that opens up the possibility of edging out the Tories to become the Official Opposition.

Adding to the confusion is the likely-voter tally from the most recent poll of the five from Ipsos Reid. That survey gave the Tories a five-point lead among all voters, but a crushing 15-point lead over the Liberals and NDP among likely voters. That extends the PCs' upper band to 42 per cent, and the Liberals down to 27 per cent.

Leaning PC?

These results are not completely indecipherable, however. The weight of the evidence leans slightly towards a PC advantage, as they have registered between 36 and 38 per cent support in three of the five polls. The Liberals have managed between 31 and 32 per cent in three of the five, while the NDP has stood at either 22 or 23 per cent in three of the five polls.

Though three out of five is not exactly overwhelming, that these results stand outside the norm in polling done since Kathleen Wynne became Liberal leader in January 2013 suggests that a shift may be in the offing. Prior to April, the Tories had only registered 36 per cent support or higher in seven of 37 polls going back to Ms. Wynne's leadership victory, while the New Democrats had been registered at 23 per cent or lower in only five of those polls. The Liberals being in the low-30s is also down from recent months.

While the polls may disagree to some extent at the province-wide level, there are some general agreements of where things stand at the regional level. The Tories hold leads over the Liberals in eastern Ontario and in the 905 area code around Toronto, while they are also edging out the New Democrats in southwestern Ontario. In Toronto itself, the Liberals hold a wide lead over the PCs and NDP, and the New Democrats appear to be in the stronger position in the north.

The seat implications

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How this would play out in seats varies from poll to poll. Using the average, the Liberals would likely win some 40 to 48 seats, with the Tories taking 36 to 44 and the New Democrats between 21 and 25. This suggests that the PCs (who currently hold 37 seats) and the NDP (which currently holds 21) stand to make gains, while the Liberals (with 48 seats at the moment) would likely lose MPPs.

But each individual poll paints a very different picture. With the highs and lows of the five April polls, the Liberals could win between 35 and 59 seats, the PCs between 27 and 51 seats, and the NDP between 18 and 31 seats. If we include the likely-voter estimate from Ipsos Reid as well, that increases the PC range up to 65 and the Liberals' down to 13. In other words, the Tories and Liberals could find themselves in first, second, or third after the dust settles. That is about the only thing they can know with certainty at this stage.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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