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Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak speaks at a campaign event in Toronto on May 16.

Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Neither the Liberals nor the Progressive Conservatives have so far definitively put their stamp on the ongoing Ontario election campaign, as the two parties remain in a muddled close race in the polls.

The latest vote projection from ThreeHundredEight.com gives the Progressive Conservatives 36 per cent support, a drop of one point since last week. The Liberals have slipped two points to 34 per cent, while the New Democrats increased their support by one point to reach 23 per cent. An average of 5 per cent of Ontarians have said they would vote for the Green Party.

With these levels of support, both the PCs and Liberals have the potential to win the plurality of seats with between 38 and 54 for the Progressive Conservatives and between 32 and 52 for the Liberals. While that only just puts the PCs at the majority-government mark, the overall picture is a return to a minority legislature.

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But this does suggest that the Tories have marginally improved their position over last week, when the seat ranges favoured the Liberals.

The New Democrats would be able to win between 16 and 23 seats at this stage of the race, little changed from last week.

PC advantage

The polls continue to show disagreement in the exact state of the contest, however. Three polls have been released since last week. A poll by Ipsos Reid for CTV News gave the Tories a nine-point advantage. A survey by EKOS Research for iPolitics put the margin at seven points for the Liberals. The most recent poll, by Abacus Data for Sun News, split the difference, putting the two parties in a tie at 33 per cent apiece.

The trendlines do not help explain what is going on in Ontario, as Ipsos and EKOS both show widening leads for the party they have placed in front. Abacus has not reported in almost a year, so no trends can be discerned.

But there is one thing that the polls seem to agree upon. Both Ipsos and Abacus are taking steps in this campaign to try to identify Ontarians most likely to cast a ballot, rather than just gauging the opinions of all eligible voters (a majority of which did not vote in the 2011 Ontario election). And both firms have shown greater strength for the PCs among this group than among the general population. Ipsos gave the Tories a 12-point edge among likely voters, while in Abacus's estimation the tie turns into a three-point lead for the PCs.

Other firms that are not making explicit efforts to identify likely voters also hint that the Tories may have an intrinsic advantage, as they show wide leads among older Ontarians (who are more likely to vote).

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The Liberals are not disadvantaged among likely voters, with Abacus showing the party holding its numbers and Ipsos showing them performing slightly better than among the general population. The New Democrats and Greens, however, show a poorer performance among likely voters.

The GTA and the Southwest

Two regions of Ontario are setting up to be electorally significant in this campaign: the Greater Toronto Area outside of the city centre itself, and the southwestern corner of the province.

Since last week, the PCs have improved their position in the 905 area code of the GTA (essentially the Toronto suburbs, Hamilton, and the Niagara peninsula) with a six-point gain at the expense of the Liberals. The Tories lead in the region with 39 per cent against 33 per cent for the Liberals and 22 per cent for the NDP. The polls suggest that, after a brief softening of PC support in the region, the Tories are rebounding.

Southwestern Ontario, meanwhile, is a major target for the New Democrats, following in the footsteps of their by-election victories in Windsor, Kitchener and London. The party does seem to be making some gains, with a four-point increase since last week to move into a tie with the Liberals for second at 27 per cent apiece. The Tories remain in front with 37 per cent, but their support is decreasing.

Elsewhere, the Liberals were ahead in Toronto with 44 per cent against 28 per cent for the PCs and 23 per cent for the NDP, while the contest in northern and central Ontario is very close: 32 per cent for the Liberals and 30 per cent for both the PCs and NDP. In eastern Ontario, the Tories and Liberals are tied with 38 per cent apiece, followed by the NDP at 20 per cent.

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Unless the polls start showing a stronger trend in one direction or another, a close race similar to the one in 2011 may be in the cards. And that means the regional performance of each party will decide the outcome. As it stands, the Liberals are winning two-thirds of their seats in Toronto and the GTA, while the PCs are winning two-thirds of theirs in the GTA and the southwest.

ThreeHundredEight.com's vote and seat projection model aggregates all publicly released polls, weighing them by sample size, date, and the polling firm's accuracy record. The seat projection model makes individual projections for all ridings in the province, based on the regional shifts in support since the 2011 election. Projections are subject to the margins of error of the opinion polls included in the model, as well as the unpredictable nature of politics at the riding level. Full methodology can be found here.

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

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