Of the three Ontario leaders who squared off in this past Tuesday's debate, Tim Hudak impressed the most viewers and Kathleen Wynne the fewest.
But when it comes to impact on their electoral chances, the debate was neither a clean win for Mr. Hudak's Progressive Conservatives nor a decisive loss for Ms. Wynne's Liberals. Instead, it helped cement the dynamic of a two-way race between those parties, at the expense of Andrea Horwath's New Democrats.
Those are the findings of new opinion data provided by Innovative Research Group as part of its "Listening Post" project for The Globe and Mail – an ongoing attempt to gauge trends and impressions within the electorate. Through an online survey of 1,100 eligible voters in the two days after the debate, the company was able to gauge reaction of each party's supporters. And Greg Lyle, Innovative Research president, came away believing that despite Ms. Wynne's tentative performance, her party may actually have benefited most.
"It's clear that Tim Hudak won the battle," Mr. Lyle says. "However, the Liberals made some key gains in the broader war."
Mr. Hudak appears to have won the battle rather decisively. Among respondents who watched all or some of the debate, 36 per cent said he did best, roughly double the numbers for Ms. Wynne and Ms. Horwath.
His performance seems to have helped his party's chances in two ways, the first of which is exciting its base. Respondents who said they usually vote Progressive Conservative gave him much higher marks on favourability, credibility and other measurements than Liberals gave to Ms. Wynne or New Democrats to Ms. Horwath. Since Mr. Hudak's campaign strategy revolves more around mobilizing existing supporters to vote than trying to persuade new ones, those high marks matter.
While Liberals and New Democrats still had an allergic reaction to him, Mr. Hudak also made some inroads with voters who don't identify with any one party. More of those viewers gave the debate win to him than to his opponents, and more importantly, those unaligned voters who watched the debate looked more favourably on him than those who didn't – suggesting his performance should bring at least a few previously undecided voters to his party.
The catch in all this for the Tories is that while the debate seemed to achieve only one thing for the Liberals, it happens to be the strategic goal at the heart of their campaign: rallying centre-left voters, including erstwhile New Democrats, behind them in opposition to Mr. Hudak.
Although Ms. Wynne played decently but not spectacularly with New Democrats, one finding stands out. While only about one in ten New Democrats who didn't watch the debate said they were planning to vote Liberal, it was roughly three in 10 among those who had – presumably because, with Ms. Horwath somewhat marginal to the proceedings, it reinforced impressions of what the choice is.
In those two days after the debate, a remarkable 46 per cent of all self-identified New Democrats in the survey agreed that, while they like Ms. Horwath, they're worried that voting for her party would help the Tories. And 29 per cent agreed (half of them strongly) that while the Liberals have problems, they are still the best party to form government.
In other words, as throughout the campaign but even more so than previously, there are indications that people who usually vote NDP are willing to switch to the Liberals because they much prefer Ms. Wynne to Mr. Hudak.
At least, that was the case a week before election day. It is conceivable that the latest reminder of the police investigation tied to the gas-plants scandal, which came just after the survey was conducted, will give some of those voters pause. It is also possible that in the last few days of the campaign, Ms. Horwath will break through to more people than she has so far.
The debate, though, mostly served to fortify both sides in the war to which Mr. Lyle was referring – even if only one of those sides' leaders can really take much credit for it.
For more information about The Listening Post survey, and additional findings, visit politics.theglobeandmail.com