On the eve of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's first budget, her party remains in a close race with Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives, according to the latest polls. But with a drop in support and few prospects for seat gains, the incentive for Andrea Horwath's New Democrats to defeat the government is not as strong as it once was.
The Tories have the support of an estimated 36 per cent of Ontarians, based on a weighted aggregation of the most recent public opinion polls. The Liberals follow with 33 per cent, while 26 per cent of Ontarians support the provincial NDP and 5 per cent would cast their ballot for the Ontario Greens.
Compared to mid-February, shortly after Ms. Wynne had won the Ontario Liberal leadership race and boosted her party's numbers from their woeful performance under Dalton McGuinty, this represents a gain of five points for the PCs and two points for the Liberals. The NDP and Greens have each dropped three points over that period.
But there is a lack of consensus among the polls. Though the Tories do seem to have improved their position somewhat across most surveys – they have led or been tied for the lead in the last seven – the Liberals and New Democrats are harder to pin down. Since mid-February, the OLP has been pegged at anywhere between 28 and 36 per cent, with those two extremes having occurred in the two most recent polls. As a result, the Liberals have been tied (or nearly tied) for the lead in three of the last seven polls, but have also been placed third in one of them. While the New Democrats do appear to have taken a step backwards, their place in the polls is such that a few points could make the difference of half a dozen seats or more.
Based on what the aggregate shows, however, the Ontario Liberals would likely eke out another slim minority of 46 seats, with the PCs winning 41 and the New Democrats 20. This is an increase of five seats for the Tories and two seats for the NDP compared to their current standings in the Legislative Assembly, while the Liberals would drop five seats (another two seats are currently vacant, and had been previously occupied by the Liberals).
But a minority victory is far from assured for Ms. Wynne with these numbers. At least a dozen of the ridings projected to remain Liberal are decided by only a few percentage points in the model, suggesting that if the vote broke down more favourably for Mr. Hudak he could approach the majority threshold himself. That would appear to be a far more likely occurrence than Ms. Wynne managing the feat, considering that she trails the PCs province-wide.
Ms. Wynne does have an advantage over Mr. Hudak on a personal level, with poll after poll showing that the PC leader's approval rating remains abysmal. It is hovering somewhere around 30 per cent, with his disapproval rating at 50 per cent. By comparison, Ms. Wynne has an approval and disapproval rating in the high-30s, and a recent survey by Ipsos-Reid showed that – despite trailing the Tories by nine points in the poll – Ms. Wynne was tied with Mr. Hudak on who would make the best premier. The Liberal Leader also beat Mr. Hudak on the questions of trust and ability to tackle health care and education. Though Mr. Hudak was in front on economic and fiscal issues, he had been ahead of Mr. McGuinty on those questions ahead of his unsuccessful bid for premier in 2011.
Nevertheless, the numbers have been moving in Mr. Hudak's favour recently. His party has made gains in every region of the province, and leads in the GTA as well as in eastern and southwestern Ontario. The Tories made their biggest gain in the eastern part of the province, where they lead with 45 per cent, and could threaten several of the seats held by Liberals in and around Ottawa.
The Liberals still have their stronghold of Toronto, where they have picked up three points and lead with 43 per cent. They are also in a good position in the GTA, trailing the Tories by six points, and would win two-thirds of their seats in and around the metropolis.
The New Democrats are down throughout Ontario, on the other hand, putting them out of range of winning many new seats in Toronto and the southwestern and northern parts of the province. They are still ahead, though narrowly, in northern Ontario and the Hamilton-Niagara region.
But whereas her party might have lost a step, Ms. Horwath remains the most popular political leader in the province. Her approval ratings remain high and she scores much better among her own supporters than do either Mr. Hudak or Ms. Wynne, suggesting the NDP vote may be more enthusiastic. However, it is difficult to deny that the arrival of Ms. Wynne has given the Liberals new energy and makes Ms. Horwath's electoral calculations more complicated. If an election were held today, it would almost certainly be a toss-up between the Liberals and PCs. But the race is close enough between the three parties that a month of campaigning could turn those electoral calculations on their head.
ThreeHundredEight.com's vote 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 107 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.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com .