On the evening after the Ontario election's lone leaders' debate, Brampton was not exactly buzzing with campaign chatter.
Of twenty voters in two neighbouring suburban ridings who opened their doors to a journalist, only three said they had watched the debate. A handful of others said they had followed the coverage of it. Based on the level of enthusiasm, it is unlikely that even half of them will vote Thursday.
Welcome to the Greater Toronto Area – the part of the province that will play the biggest role in who gets the keys to the premier's office, and the one probably the least engaged in that decision.
Granted, there might be some competition for that designation. In Ontario's last election, 49 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots; those working on campaigns predict an even lower figure this time, despite a more interesting clash of ideas than during the desultory 2011 race. But capturing the attention and interest of the commuter communities that surround the country's biggest city is an especially uphill battle.
Residents aren't home much, posing a challenge for canvassing candidates. Civic participation, including political volunteerism, is relatively low. While there are certainly problems in search of solutions, traffic gridlock being an obvious example, an election focused largely on economic challenges does not resonate as much in this fast-growing region as it does in hard-hit southwestern Ontario or the province's north.
That makes the GTA an enormous wild card, because nobody can be quite sure who will benefit and who will suffer for the low interest.
Kathleen Wynne's Liberals have appeared confident, based on their polling, that they're in position to hold on to their 13 seats surrounding Toronto, and maybe even pick up a couple currently held by the Progressive Conservatives. The PCs think they have a good chance of taking several Liberal seats and perhaps riding a wave across the region, because they expect supporters to be mobilized while many would-be Liberal voters stay home.
If either party is correct, it can expect to win government. But the unreliability of political polling makes it extremely difficult to know whose confidence is misplaced.
As in the rest of the province, opinion researchers are struggling to gauge an electorate that can no longer easily be reached by phone, and to predict results when many of the people being surveyed won't actually vote. Adding to the difficulty in the GTA is the large number of residents who speak English as a second language, making them harder than other voters for pollsters to reach.
There is also a tendency in some polling (not to mention punditry) to lump the entire GTA together, despite distinct areas within. There is little reason to believe that York Region ridings such as Richmond Hill and Markham-Unionville, where Chinese-Canadians make up the biggest immigrant communities, will break the same way as Peel Region ridings in Brampton and Mississauga, which have huge South-Asian populations.
Then there is the complicating factor of how much local candidates count. It's generally assumed that they don't matter as much in urban or suburban ridings as in rural or small-town ones. But with a high degree of cynicism about all party leaders, incumbents who have built up strong connections with their ridings – particularly those from those ridings' biggest immigrant communities – could have significant advantages.
At least, they will with the people who haven't already given up on the idea that this election will make much difference in their lives, and don't find something better to do on Thursday, and don't give up on the idea of voting after fighting their way through traffic to get home. It may be a rather small segment of suburbia, in the end, that has the province's future in its hands.