Kathleen Wynne's Liberals are holding on to a steady lead in popular support, a new poll suggests, but remain in minority government territory ahead of an election that could come as early as this spring.
The Progressive Conservatives, meanwhile, are duking it out with the New Democrats for second place as the Ontario Premier bests both the PCs' Tim Hudak and the NDP's Andrea Horwath in public perceptions of her leadership.
Out of 500 Ontarians surveyed by Nanos Research, 36 per cent are prepared to vote Liberal, compared to 28 per cent support for the Tories and 27 for the NDP. These numbers represent a change of less than a percentage point for the Liberals since September, while Mr. Hudak's party is down by three points in the same period and Ms. Horwath's is up by one.
"The longer Wynne is the Premier, the more she looks like a Premier – and we haven't seen any major gaffes out of her adminstration," Nanos Research chairman Nik Nanos said in an interview. "The Liberals have been relatively united behind her."
Mr. Hudak, meanwhile, has spent a lot of time fighting divisions in his party, including a spat over controversial right-to-work policies that led to the firing of a candidate last week. And now, he must battle Ms. Horwath to hold on to his place as principal opposition leader.
"For the Conservatives, it's very important for them to be positioned as the main challengers to the Liberals – to have numbers in the same range as the NDP is not ideal," Mr. Nanos said. "It's harder for a movement to unseat a government, to have momentum, when it's not clear which opposition party is the main challenger."
Such numbers may explain why the Tories have stepped up their attacks on the NDP in recent days, Mr. Nanos said. A PC radio ad released earlier this week in Niagara Falls, where a by-election campaign is underway, attacks the NDP while making scant mention of the Grits.
But the pollster cautioned the Liberals shouldn't get too comfortable: pulling these numbers in an election would still leave them with a minority of seats in the legislature.
"I don't think the Liberals should assume it's going to be smooth sailing," Mr. Nanos said.
Ms. Wynne is thumping her rivals in personal popularity, however: survey respondents ranked her at the top when asked which party leader is most competent and trustworthy, and has the best vision for the province. Her score is 71 out of 100 on Nanos's leadership index, with Ms. Horwath at 55 and Mr. Hudak at 49.
Mr. Nanos attributed Ms. Wynne's score to the visibility of being Premier – she was front-and-centre during last month's ice storm, and has also attracted attention for her plan to create a new provincial pension system.
Of concern for Mr. Hudak, Mr. Nanos said, is how poorly he continues to poll among women. When asked which party leader had the best vision, for instance, 25 per cent of men picked the Tory leader, compared to just 13 per cent of women.
"Two of the three party leaders in Ontario are women … both with fairly good brands in the public domain," Mr. Nanos said. "It kind of squeezes Tim Hudak as the odd man out."
The news isn't all bad for the Tories, however. The poll also suggests the economy – the main issue on which Mr. Hudak will campaign in the next election – is at the top of voters' minds, with 17 per cent of respondents picking it as the province's most important issue. That put it second only to health care, a perennial favourite, which sits at 19 per cent.
If Mr. Hudak can convince the public he is a good economic manager, it will bode well for his chances, Mr. Nanos said. The Liberals, conversely, must have a "bulletproof narrative" to explain to voters why the economy has continued to falter, he said.
With the Liberals holding only a minority of seats in the legislature, they must secure the support of at least one other party to pass a budget this spring. If the PCs and New Democrats both vote against them, it will trigger an early vote.
The poll, which consisted of live telephone interviews conducted from Jan. 17-20, is considered accurate to plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.