BELLEVILLE — If the Ontario New Democrats are going to form a government, they are going to have to court people like Holly McPherson, an undecided voter in the riding of Bay of Quinte.
For the 48-year-old administrator at the local public health board, the Progressive Conservatives are not an option. While she likes the local Liberal candidate, she worries that a vote for the party will be wasted as it faces certain defeat in the June 7 general election (and this interview happened before Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne conceded defeat ahead of the election).
And though McPherson doesn’t recall ever voting NDP in the past, she is giving the New Democrats’ platform — and their leader, Andrea Horwath — a closer look.
“I like Horwath. I like the way she speaks,” she says. “I know we’re voting for our local candidate, but you can’t help but have it in the back of your mind who they’re representing.”
If Horwath is to become Ontario’s next premier she will likely have to forge a path through Bay of Quinte, a riding of about 110,000 people that includes the municipalities of Belleville, Prince Edward County and Quinte West. The district, which is new for the 2018 election, has been identified as a key race for the NDP by Advanced Symbolics, a market research company that uses artificial intelligence to track public opinion.
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If you’ve been watching The Agenda with Steve Paikin over the last few weeks, you’re probably familiar with Advanced Symbolics and its AI algorithm, nicknamed “Polly.”
Polly reads publicly viewable social media posts to collect and create representative, randomized samples of populations. Lately, it has been monitoring social media postings by residents of each one of Ontario's 124 ridings. The AI uses text analytics and machine learning to make a best guess on which way people are leaning or voting. The huge sample size, says Advanced Symbolics CEO Erin Kelly, represents an advantage over traditional polling: Polly essentially “surveys” hundreds of thousands of people instead of the thousands (or fewer) who typically respond to a phone or online poll.
Among other things, Polly has concluded the NDP could pull off upset victory over the PCs. It’s much more likely that the PCs will win the most seats, but a NDP government is possible. “We asked the AI, ‘Is there a path to victory for Andrea Horwath? And if there were, what would it be?’ And this is what’s interesting about using AI, versus phone polling,” Kelly says. A computer can not only gauge the public mood, it can simulate possible outcomes based on what it learns. “With phone polling you can’t do this.”
According to Polly, the NDP need to siphon five percentage points from the PCs’ pool of decided voters in order to win. “If she were to steal five per cent of the vote from the Liberals — because the Liberal support is more spread out — it translates into only two seats for her. So she's not going to win by stealing votes from the Liberals. But if she steals votes from the PCs, that same five per cent translates to 14 seats. And then she wins government. That’s what the AI said.”
In a simulated scenario that Advanced Symbolics has shared with TVO, there are 14 ridings across the province that have been leaning PC, but which the NDP could potentially “steal” — or “toggle” as the polling firm calls it — in order to form a government. Bay of Quinte is one of those 14 ridings in play. As well, it’s the only one of the 14 that Kelly is naming publicly. She’s keeping the others a secret to avoid affecting the outcome of the election. Kelly chose to discuss Bay of Quinte, she says, because it’s not the typical place that most observers would imagine voting for the NDP.
“It’s never really been an NDP area,” Kelly says. “It’s not a manufacturing town. It just doesn’t seem like typical Andrea Horwath territory.”
Familiar names on the ballot
Colin MacKay, a retired schoolteacher and columnist for the Belleville Intelligencer, is surprised to learn that the NDP could be a factor at all in the Bay of Quinte region.
With just days to go before the election, MacKay would typically be willing to predict the outcome. But this time around, given how close the race seems to be, he isn’t prepared to do that. Earlier in the election campaign, he says, “I would have said Todd Smith will win in a cakewalk. [But] honestly, I couldn’t tell you now.”
MacKay points out that Progressive Conservative candidate Todd Smith has represented parts of the riding before. From 2011 until the dissolution of the legislature last month, Smith was the MPP for the now-defunct riding of Prince Edward—Hastings. (Before that, he was a prominent radio broadcaster.)
Local Liberal candidate Robert Quaiff is also well known, because he’s the current mayor of Prince Edward County.
Meanwhile, MacKay says, NDP candidate Joanne Belanger does not have the same prominence in the community as Smith or Quaiff. Belanger, a Quinte West resident, works as a chaplain at Belleville’s Nicholson Catholic College. The Green Party candidate is Mark Daye, who is a property manager and former deputy leader of the party.
“You’ve got Todd Smith, the [former sitting MPP] for the last eight years, versus Joanne Belanger, who nobody really knows. And Robert Quaiff, who [people in Prince Edward County] would know,” MacKay says. “Now I’m listening to this, going, ‘Bay of Quinte is one of those 14 ridings that could possibly go NDP. And I wonder, is it possible?’ ”
But with Polly showing such a close race between the NDP and PC, MacKay admits that the riding may get caught up in the larger provincial campaign, and local name recognition might not be as central a factor as he’d previously expected.
Algorithms vs. indecision
Polly isn’t all-knowing, meanwhile. For one thing, it can’t eavesdrop on Holly McPherson and two of her close colleagues on a lunch break from their administrative jobs with Hastings Prince Edward Public Health. The three women are slightly embarrassed to admit they haven’t made their choice ahead of the fast-approaching election.
“It’s the hardest time I’ve ever had making a decision,” McPherson says, adding that she was pleased to see all of the major parties have made commitments to mental health, an issue she believes ought to get more attention.
“We all want the least-worst option,” says Sara Rollins, who has already determined she won’t be voting Tory. That leaves the Liberals and NDP, though Rollins has concerns about a possible NDP government. “We’re all in a union,” she says. “And they are very big on NDP. But then you think of — what was it? The Bob Rae Days? That affected a lot of people. Even though it was years ago, it's on your mind, right?”
Asked who they would vote for if they had to, Karen Edison is the first to offer up her choice, albeit begrudgingly. She says she likes Quaiff, and would be willing to vote for him even though public opinion has not been kind to his party. “I hate to say it, but I’d probably vote Liberal,” says Edison.
McPherson nods her head, seemingly in agreement. “Yeah, I feel the same way,” she says, then pauses as her face gives way to a more quizzical look.
“Actually, I’m not sure,” she sighs. “Sorry.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.
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