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Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has a drink of Tim Hortons coffee with Chatham-Kent-Essex candidate Rick Nicolls at a campaign stop in Blenheim, Ontario, Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. (DAVE CHIDLEY/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has a drink of Tim Hortons coffee with Chatham-Kent-Essex candidate Rick Nicolls at a campaign stop in Blenheim, Ontario, Monday, Oct. 3, 2011. (DAVE CHIDLEY/THE CANADIAN PRESS)


Hudak fights against backward momentum in Ontario election Add to ...

His early lead in the polls withered, defending a clumsy attempt to create a wedge issue, Tim Hudak looks like a man with backward momentum in the Ontario election campaign’s final days.

But counting the Progressive Conservative Leader out, just because he is losing the air war, would be premature. Mr. Hudak’s Tories could still win something that’s at least as important: the ground war.

The media has a tendency to pretend that campaigns are all about changing minds. But with turnout potentially dipping below 50 per cent this election, an equal (perhaps bigger) priority is just getting the like-minded to leave their homes and vote.

On that front, the Tories still have some cause for optimism – and not just because their right-leaning base is generally seen to be more motivated than the Liberals’ centrist one.

Admittedly, that hasn’t been readily apparent on the campaign trail, where Mr. Hudak has been speaking to smaller crowds than Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty. Energy on Mr. Hudak’s tour seems to be flagging as the race grinds to a close, the early optimism that he was cruising toward a big victory replaced by a sense that he’s just going through the motions.

Although his jam-packed schedule on Monday seemed designed to project energy, it resulted in something less than Hudak-mania – an audience generously pegged at two dozen coming out to see him during a morning stop in Windsor, before a desultory slog through Southwestern Ontario. The day ended before a bigger crowd in Brampton, but even there his well-rehearsed lines seemed to fall flat.

But Mr. Hudak’s campaign manager, Mark Spiro, specializes in voter mobilization – probably more so than anyone else in the country. Having honed this craft with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, he is trying to ensure a repeat of the federal phenomenon in which the Tories fare better on election day than the polls (or the pundits) predict.

As with most modern get-out-the-vote strategies, Mr. Spiro’s is enormously complex. But at its root is finding ways that don’t involve the mainstream media to connect with a disengaged electorate.

Through an intricate voter-profiling system, the Tories are able to tailor their messages to narrow audiences. Voters within the same ridings – in some cases, voters living within a block of each other – receive different pieces of campaign literature and get phone calls with different scripts.

As with the misleading anti-sex education flyer that put Mr. Hudak on the defensive Monday, such strategies can backfire when a broader audience takes notice of a micro-targeted message. But for the most part, it all flies under the radar.

Meanwhile, rather than relying too heavily on traditional events like campaign rallies, the Tories are trying to find other ways to engage supporters in battleground ridings. One of their preferred methods in this election has been “telephone town halls,” in which Mr. Hudak can be connected with thousands of people at once.

In some cases, other high-profile Tories are brought in to help with this task. Last weekend, Jewish voters were invited to participate in a telephone town hall with federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. (How they managed to frame this as a discussion about the provincial election is unclear.)

The name of the game is supplementing traditional door-to-door and telephone efforts to identify would-be PC voters, who can then be cajoled into coming out on election day. While any party’s progress reports have to be taken with a grain of salt, senior Tories seem genuinely confident in how that effort is going. And given the number of ridings that could be settled by a few hundred votes, that could make all the difference – especially in the “905 belt” around Toronto, where it’s especially difficult to engage voters.

For all this, there is a caveat. Mr.McGuinty’s Liberals are vastly better-organized that their federal cousins, who proved doormats for Mr. Harper last spring. And for the past couple of years, they have put their considerable resources toward modernizing their own get-out-the-vote machine.

They, too, are now using intricate voter research to micro-target their messages. To help build that system, they enlisted the help of Warren Flood, a Canadian who oversaw data collection for nine Western states during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. And Liberal officials say they have drawn other lessons from Mr. Obama’s campaign as well, including having their volunteers rely on personal stories about why they’re supporting Mr. McGuinty to try to engage people at the doors and over the phones.

The Liberals are still playing catch-up, in terms of matching Mr. Spiro’s methods. But they seem to have the advantage of more volunteers to pull the vote on election day, in part because of support from organized labour. And Liberal sources continually express confidence that their vote will be more “efficient,” meaning less centralized in ridings they would win regardless.

As for Andrea Horwath’s NDP, it has nowhere near the organization or the technology of the other two parties. That means its share of the popular vote will likely be a little lower than what the polls show. Nevertheless, it should be able to direct large groups of volunteers to the 20 or 25 ridings it has a good chance of winning, a few of which are places where it’s in competition with the Tories rather than the Liberals.

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