We’re halfway through the federal-election campaign, and, perhaps more so than usual, all eyes should be on Ontario.
Everything we’ve seen suggests an incredibly tight race between the Conservatives and the Liberals for first and between the NDP and the Greens for third. But it’s also been a very stable race: national polls have shown no major swings, not even following the disclosure of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s bizarre history of racist cosplay. All the movement in this campaign, thus far, has seemed to be at the margins — or, more specifically, within the margin of error.
For the Liberals and Conservatives, that means there isn’t much room to manoeuvre. The Liberals will probably lose some seats in Atlantic Canada, which they swept in 2015. They’re strong in Quebec, but they’re not guaranteed to hold on to all their seats there. The Conservatives are maintaining their usual dominance of the Western provinces. Toronto seems likely to remain a Liberal bastion. For both parties, the entire race will come down to a very limited number of ridings. And one of the places you can find them is the suburban 905 belt around Toronto.
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Which way are those ridings leaning?
Three months ago, TVO.org published an interview I’d done with John Wright, the CEO of DART, a Toronto-based executive-communications company, and a pollster with decades of experience (and, full disclosure, a personal friend of mine). In July, we spoke about Doug Ford’s plummeting popular-approval ratings and what challenges they might pose for the federal Conservatives during the election campaign. This week, I called Wright and asked him to update me on what had changed since then. His thoughts are below.
Matt Gurney: What’s the state of things, nationally and in Ontario? I’ll ask you specifically about the 905 shortly, but let’s start with the overall snapshot.
John Wright: There are two main groups of polls out there right now. One shows a very tight race nationally, with a Liberal advantage in Ontario. The other has the Tories moving into the lead both provincially and nationally. I’m very much in that second group. What’s creating the different outcomes is pretty technical. In short, it comes down to how much weighting the pollsters are giving to how people voted in the last election. A model with a strong link to past voter behaviour will see much better numbers for the Liberals. In 2015, there was an extraordinary turnout among millennials, but I’m not seeing anything like that this time. If that’s not going to happen, then you are back to how voter age groups have traditionally gone to the polls, back to 2004. Older voters, who tend to vote Conservative, are most likely to show up. So when you shake loose that anomalous 2015 connection and go back to filtering by traditional turnout, the Conservatives are clearly ahead. That’s what I’m doing with my model. There are some new polling results I’m working on now that will be ready in a few days, but, in general terms, I’d say, nationally, we could call it 38 to 30 for the Tories over the Liberals on the turnout model, and the Tories are ahead by about five points in Ontario and a few points more in the 905 region, where it’s a knife fight. The size of that spread at all levels for the Conservatives is post-blackface. If this holds, I’d say there’s going to be a ballot-box bonus for the Conservatives based on older voters getting to the voting booth with younger voters back to hanging in the wings. Also important is the percentage of people saying that the incumbent government deserves re-election: the Liberals are stuck at around 29 per cent. That’s a great harbinger of the eventual outcome, and it’s lining up with the polls that don’t heavily weight the last election’s result.
Gurney: One of the provisos about national polling is that Conservative dominance in Alberta and Saskatchewan inflates the party’s national numbers. Is there something akin to that happening in Ontario? Are the Liberals doing so well in Toronto that it’s inflating their provincewide total?
Wright: I agree with that, yeah. Toronto really concentrates the Liberal vote, but the real battleground, of course, surrounds the city, in the 905 area code. The polling sample sizes for the 416 and 905 voters are obviously smaller when doing a national poll, so it’s hard to read too much into what you are looking at between the two. But, right now, it is giving the Conservatives an advantage, which is pushing Tory numbers up in the province overall.
Gurney: Why do you think the polls shouldn’t be filtering through past voter preference?
Wright: The circumstances of 2015 were pretty unique. The Tories lost a majority government, and a ton of seats, but actually barely lost any voters. The Liberals won last time by bringing out young voters in huge numbers and growing the voter base. Millennial vote share jumped something like 10 points — almost all going to the Liberals. The Liberals also campaigned from the left to steal the NDP voters. They can’t expect to do that this time. Yes, the blackface fiasco has hurt the momentum for the Liberals. Yes, the NDP is running an energetic campaign from the left. But Trudeau has four years of accumulated baggage. And if that millennial vote either goes back to the standard 40 per cent turnout or disperses to other parties, the Liberals lose. I think that’s why we’re seeing some of these Hail Mary proposals of late. If you look back a year, to October 2018, their numbers were already suffering. Since then, there’s hardly a poll in town that has shown them above 32 per cent. The Liberals have had a really, really hard time getting off the mat since the SNC-Lavalin explosion happened. They have not recovered, nationally or in Ontario, from that. So the millennials have abandoned them so far, and the party is anemic right now. Most millennials don’t feel better off than they were before Trudeau took office.
Gurney: Let’s talk for a minute about the 905 specifically. What’s happening there?
Wright: Like I said, with the exception of one firm, no one has got a big consistent sample in any poll to be definitive, so I have to apply my own professional judgment a bit when I am looking at these numbers. And what I’m seeing now is a Conservative advantage, but it has been volatile in the 905. Right now, the Conservatives have an edge, but we will want to wait until after the debates to see if anything locks in and stabilizes. And, like I said, if the Conservatives are ahead like I have them right now, I think that explains a lot of what we’ve seen from the Liberals of late with their kitchen-sink-type policy throwdowns.
Gurney: A few months ago, we talked a lot about Doug Ford. It was just after his cabinet shuffle. It was a horrible month for him; he was way down in the polls. You told me then, “The premier needs to go to the cottage while the heat is turned down by his new staff and stay out of sight as much as possible.” He’s generally stuck to something close to that. Just a few days ago, in fact, the Toronto Star published a column claiming that Ford is seething with anger because Trudeau keeps slamming him in his speeches — yet Ford has stayed away. What do you see, if anything, happening in Ontario with a Ford effect?
Wright: It’s having an effect, for sure. But, from what I can see, it’s having an effect with NDP and Liberal voters: it’s depressing their chance of switching over to maybe voting for Andrew Scheer. But, among Conservatives supporters, who are older and don’t see themselves reflected in the Trudeau agenda that has been narrowcasted to millennials and are more likely to go out and vote? I’m not seeing it. They are angry at Trudeau regardless of what Ford has done or stands for, and they are headed to the polls. Also, remember that the millennial vote is no longer as apparently homogeneous as some think. Many of them are disappointed, disheartened, and don’t feel any better off than they were before. Look, the Liberals appear to have had a really simple campaign plan: vilify Ford to get the 905 ridings and shred Scheer’s credibility. Well, Ford is out of the picture, and Trudeau’s own credibility is now in the dumpster, so the plan is off the rails. How do they respond? Like the Liberals did in the final vestiges of the Kathleen Wynne government, when they threw out huge spending promises and a chicken in every pot to get NDP voters to join them and sway middle voters that they could have a bright future despite massive deficits. My question for the Liberal strategists today is simple: How did that Wynne strategy work out then — and how’s it working for you so far?
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.