Handicapping the next Ontario election

By Steve Paikin - Published on September 15, 2017
Kathleen Wynne, Patrick Brown, Andrea Horwath
Most election observers agree that the PCs would have the best shot at governing were an election held today.

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I get asked almost every day who’s going to win the 2018 Ontario election, and I always give the same answer: anyone who thinks they can divine the outcome this far in advance, regardless of what the polls say today, is simply full of it.

Having said that, I can pass along how experts are handicapping the election campaign, so let’s do that.

Wednesday, National Public Relations brought together some of the province’s leading pollsters, data readers, and political strategists to get their take on the upcoming vote.

Interestingly, despite the Progressive Conservatives’ two-years-plus lead in the polls, Ipsos’ Darrell Bricker insisted the outcome of the next election is not a foregone conclusion.

“The PCs always want to run an ideological campaign,” Bricker said. “Their base always wants the leader to be championing their core issues. But that’s a big mistake. They need to project confidence and competence, not ideology.”

Despite the NDP’s having won only one election in its history, Bricker agreed with my take that there is a path toward an NDP victory in 2018. Given that both the Liberals and the New Democrats are positioning themselves to be the champions of the progressive vote, Bricker said NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s play should be, “I’ve got a better ship, and I’m a better captain” for the progressive forces, who may have grown weary of the Liberals. Plus, Horwath tops every poll that asks which of the three major party leaders the public likes most for premier.

“She’s experienced,” added Bob Richardson, National PR’s senior counsel, referring to Horwath’s already having led the NDP into two previous general election campaigns. “She’s comfortable in her own skin. She can swing for the fences because unless she improves her party’s position dramatically, it’s probably her last campaign as leader.”

What does the NDP have to watch out for? “There’s no sense of a team behind Horwath,” Richardson said. “Where are all the good candidates? Plus the question voters always ask: Am I wasting my vote by voting NDP?”

With that, Richardson predicted the NDP’s slogan: “Wynne has failed. The Conservatives will destroy Ontario. Try us.”

Can the Liberals still win with Kathleen Wynne? Absolutely, Bricker insisted.

“They have one strategy,” he said. “Unite the progressives, make the NDP irrelevant, and demonize the Conservatives. People believe Premier Wynne has a good heart, but 75 per cent have a very negative view of the Liberal government.”

Bricker added that the Liberals do have some things going for them — particularly an improving economy.

“Kathleen Wynne is the toughest, hardest-working politician,” said Richardson. Then, using a well-travelled boxing metaphor, he added: “She is competitive and can take a punch and get off the mat better than anyone.”

On the down side, Richardson pointed to fatigue with 15 straight years of Liberal administration, little sense of renewal (where are the impressive, new Liberal candidates?) and a premier who’s far too exposed and seems to feel she needs to be in the media every day.

Everyone agreed the PCs would have the best shot at governing were an election held today. The leader, Patrick Brown, has broadened the base of the party to include many more citizens from the South Asian and Chinese communities. The party is flush with cash. It’s attracted the highest-profile new candidate in Caroline Mulroney, daughter of Canada’s 18th prime minister. And it doesn’t hurt that Ontarians traditionally like to hedge their bets by putting different parties in place on Parliament Hill and at Queen’s Park. With a federal Liberal government in Ottawa, the betting is, that helps Brown’s forces.

The experts also agreed on one more thing: the 905 region will decide who forms the next government. Rural Ontario is solidly Tory. The capital is a dogfight between the Liberals and the NDP, with the PCs for the first time in 15 years being competitive in some inner-suburban ridings.

But the 905 is in play. Brown today has a double digit lead in the region, “but it’s fluid,” said Bricker. 

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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