The Ontario election remains a three-horse race four weeks into the campaign, with the one and only televised leaders' debate doing nothing to end the dead heat between the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives or budge support for the New Democrats.
Although voters' impressions of New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath improved the most after last Tuesday's debate, that did not shift support to her party, leaving all three contenders gridlocked six days before voters go to the polls next Thursday.
Dalton McGuinty's Liberals are neck and neck with Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives, and the New Democrats are enjoying their highest level of support since the party ruled the province in the early 1990s, according to a new Nanos poll conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV.
The 90-minute televised debate on Tuesday evening gave the two rookies vying to unseat Mr. McGuinty as premier an opportunity to make a first impression on many viewers. Ms. Horwath clearly surprised viewers with her performance. Half of those polled said their impression of Ms. Horwath improved because of the debate.
But neither the NDP leader nor her rivals had a strong enough performance to change voters' minds outright. The result: Support for all three parties remains virtually unchanged since a Nanos poll on Sept. 11. The latest poll shows the Liberals leading with 37.7 per cent support, a 3.3-point lead over the Tories that is within the margin of error. The New Democrats have 25.5 per cent support.
"The debate has not resulted in any sort of breakaway momentum for any of the three party leaders," pollster Nik Nanos said in an interview. "For all intents and purposes, it was a wash for Dalton McGuinty and Tim Hudak."
Moving into the final days of the campaign, Mr. Nanos said, the ground war is going to become crucial as all three parties seek to win over voters, riding by riding, demographic group by demographic group.
The poll shows that the Liberals enjoy a clear advantage with female voters – a group that remains a challenge for Mr. Hudak's Tories, despite the frequent presence of his daughter, Miller, and his wife Deb Hutton, on the hustings with him. Only 28.4 per cent of women surveyed said they would vote Tory, well below the 42.1 per cent support for the Liberals.
Mr. Hudak told The Globe and Mail editorial board on Friday that he thinks his promises to provide relief for families, including removing the provincial portion of the harmonized sales tax from electricity bills, will be enough to woo female voters.
"I feel very confident about women and men moving towards our party," he said.
When it comes to seniors, the situation is the reverse, with the Tories enjoying more support among Ontarians 60 years of age and older: 44.6 per cent of this group said they would vote for the Tories, compared with 38.9 per cent for the Liberals.
Mr. Hudak does enjoy a slight advantage over his chief rival when it comes to perceived ability to manage economic priorities, a topic the poll suggests has supplanted health care as the biggest issue of concern for Ontarians.
In the Sept. 11 Nanos poll, health care was the No. 1 issue of concern for 32.9 per cent of those surveyed. It has since dropped to 22.8 per cent, while the economy and jobs were the top issues for 24.7 per cent of those surveyed.
Concerns about jobs were particularly important for young people between the ages of 18 and 29, a group in which unemployment levels are stubbornly high.
Nanos conducted the poll of 600 Ontarians over two days beginning on Sept. 28; 30.8 per cent of those surveyed watched the debate. The results are accurate within 4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.