Late in last fall's provincial campaign, the Ontario Liberals cancelled the construction of a gas plant project in Mississauga, in the process preventing four seats from falling into Tory hands and potentially costing the government almost $200-million. That's the story, at least – but were those Liberal seats ever in real danger?
Energy Minister Chris Bentley might soon be found in contempt of the Ontario legislature for not handing over all documents related to what the opposition has called "a Liberal seat-saver program." But an analysis of the ridings in question suggests that they were highly unlikely to be lost to the Progressive Conservatives.
Which ridings were 'saved'
The four ridings most often identified as those "saved" by the decision to cancel the gas plant project are Etobicoke Centre, Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Mississauga East-Cooksville, and Mississauga South. All were held by the Liberals at the dissolution of the legislature last year, and three of them (Mississauga East-Cooksville being the exception) were held by incumbent MPPs, including cabinet ministers Laurel Broten and Charles Sousa.
On election night, all four ridings were retained by the Liberals by comfortable margins. The Liberals beat out the PC candidates by an average of 16.8 percentage points and about 6,800 votes – rather wide margins in what was a close election.
Compared to the results of the 2007 election, the three incumbent Liberal MPPs increased their vote share by an average of about three points, or 7.1 per cent. That compared quite favourably to the performance of other Liberal incumbents in the rest of Toronto and the GTA: on average, those incumbents lost three points for a reduction of 5 per cent.
Dipika Damerla in Mississauga East-Cooksville also out-performed fellow rookies in ridings where Liberal incumbents were not running for re-election. The Liberal vote dropped by about 13 points, or 23 per cent, in Mississauga East-Cooksville compared to an average loss of 13.5 points, or 27 per cent, in similarly Liberal ridings without an incumbent MPP.
Cancelling the gas plant
It would appear that the decision to cancel the gas plant project could have boosted the support of Liberals in these four ridings. But had the three incumbents suffered the same sort of losses as their colleagues in the rest of the GTA, they still would have won handily: by three points in Mississauga South, eight points in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and 11 points in Etobicoke Centre. Ms. Damerla would have won by seven points with the kind of loss suffered in Liberal ridings without an incumbent.
In other words, all things being equal, the four ridings in question would have likely still been won by the Liberals. Though the gas plant project could have galvanized opposition to the Liberals had it not been cancelled, gaps of seven to 11 points are hard to make-up on a single issue.
Similarly, ThreeHundredEight.com's seat projection model (which, based on past performances, would normally make an error in less than one out of every five ridings) awards all four of these seats to the Liberals by an average margin of 12.5 points when inputting the province-wide vote totals into it. What this means is that these ridings were not likely candidates to be flipped over to the Tories. Here again, however, there is an indication that the Liberals out-performed expectations, suggesting that the cancellation of the project could have had an effect. But they likely would have been won by the Liberals anyway.
When comparing the performance of the candidates in these four ridings to other Liberal candidates in Ontario, and when looking at how the ridings would have gone without an important local issue at play, there is a very strong indication that these seats were not in any real danger of switching to the Tories. But perhaps the gas plant project was such an intensely important issue to voters in these four ridings that it alone would have cost the Liberals the seats. A poll taken before the cancellation was announced says otherwise.
A Forum Research poll conducted on Sept. 22 and 23 and released by the Toronto Star on the morning of Sept. 24, the same day the announcement was made, found that the Liberals were leading in all four of these ridings. The Forum poll had a massive sample of about 40,000 Ontarians, equating to about 380 per riding. Though the margin of error put the Liberals and Tories in a close race in two of the four ridings, in total the Liberals were leading in them by an average of 7.6 points.
As this poll was conducted before the cancellation of the plants, they show that all four ridings were still on track to be won by the Liberals even when the project was still going ahead. The poll gave the Liberals roughly the same margins as would have been the case if the candidates in these ridings had performed about as well as their fellow Liberal candidates elsewhere. In short, it does not seem likely that the construction of this plant was going to result in Liberal defeats in any of these four ridings. All signs point to them being retained.
But what the poll also shows is that the Liberals experienced a boost in these ridings after the decision was announced, something corroborated by the projection model and the over-achievement of these Liberal candidates compared to others. The decision seems to have been worth about seven percentage points per riding, turning them from respectable wins into easy victories. Residents in Mississauga apparently liked the decision – but it is the source of a lot of problems that are plaguing the Ontario Liberals and Premier Dalton McGuinty right now. In the end, for all their troubles, it was probably unnecessary.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com .