Political scientists parse the Ontario vote

Following the Ontario provincial election campaign has been a “new toy, every day” for Western Political Science professor Cristine de Clercy.

“This is a really complicated election. If we look at the economic issues alone, not just the state of the provincial economy, that’s going to be a really important part of the election,” said de Clercy, Co-Director of the Leadership and Democracy Laboratory and Director of LEADR Research Group.

Ontarians go to the polls June 7.

With less than two weeks until the election, it is becoming increasingly difficult to project or predict an outcome, de Clercy emphasized.

More and more, election issues have become regionalized, she said.

“The concerns in southwestern Ontario, especially around the continued hollowing out of the manufacturing sector, are quite different than Toronto’s deep concern about infrastructure. And those concerns are different from the north, which wants more people, more development and more attention. The imperatives across the province are different, and that makes it challenging to predict how voters are going to line up, and it makes it hard on the parties to be fair.”

Other factors complicate analysis, de Clercy added. Polling data, while helpful in identifying key issues and divisions among the voter base, doesn’t reflect sub-regional polls. As many as 20 per cent of voters are still undecided. The increase of the provincial legislature to 124 seats, from 104 in the last election, also hampers the extrapolation of available poll data.

Divisions among Ontario’s three main political parties complicate things, too, especially among voters who believe, after 15 years of the Liberals in power, “it is time for a change,” she continued. If centrist voters are anxious to vote out the Liberals, do they go left to the New Democratic Party, or right, to the Progressive Conservatives? Party leaders will have to be particularly tactical in the short campaign time that remains.

Beyond political ideology and platforms, Ontarians are faced with the leadership question.

“Long before he became leader, (Doug) Ford’s party was the most popular place for people to park their vote, and so long as he can communicate even a moderate level of competence and attention to voters, he is well positioned to improve the Tories’ fortunes and perhaps, even become Premier,” de Clercy said.

Until now, he has done a reasonable job unifying what has been a fractious party, but Ford is still something of an unknown entity to voters.

“His challenges aren’t really perception or name recognition; his challenge is in demonstrating he has the skillset to be a good Premier. It’s worth remembering he’s a municipal politician of not-that-long duration and has been thrown into a new political arena.”

As for New Democrat leader Andrea Horwath, who is seeing some momentum in the polls, de Clercy sees promise and a “credible politician” who has improved with each election cycle.

“She has become more sophisticated at communicating to large groups of voters, at handling media, in debate formats. If we want to think about an experienced leader who understands the job, and who has demonstrated some competence to execute the Premier’s role, Andrea Horwath, at this point in her career, is very well positioned to do that,” de Clercy added.

“The question voters have is derived from the NDP’s legacy (in the province), and we come back to (former Ontario NDP Premier) Bob Rae. The New Democrats have put a lot of stock in her popularity, too, but we don’t know much about who might form the cabinet if she becomes Premier and that is important.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne faces significant challenges, having weathered troubles ranging from the gas plant scandal that developed under Dalton McGuinty, to the sale of Hydro One, to mounting criticism of economic policies that led to finance critic Derek Fildebrandt’s labelling of Ontario as a “fiscal basket case.”

“What all three leaders do now, in this next segment of the campaign, is pretty important. What seems clear is people generally seem to be saying, ‘We want change.’ If that’s true, that does not bode well for the incumbent Liberals, so the question becomes which way they will bounce,” de Clercy said.

If the Liberals can’t corral and mobilize their voting base, they will polarize voters and force a showdown between Horwath and Ford.

While Horwath has seen some momentum in the polls, Ford has faced criticism over hand-selecting candidates in numerous ridings, including Andrew Lawton in London West. Lawton will present a challenge for Conservative voters, she explained.

“Mr. Lawton has been in the news because of his unusual position in terms of asking for compassion for statements he made when he was not fully mentally healthy, and asking for forgiveness, saying he’s a new man now and he disowns them. How that plays out will be up to the electors – he has one way to describe what happened and says he is different and it’s up to the voters to make the choice,” de Clercy noted.

“But at the end of the day, the leader has to put together a team he feels comfortable working with and this was (Ford’s) choice. It will be interesting to see how he defends his choice because I don’t think the controversy around Mr. Lawton is going to go away.”

Indeed, Ford has been a polarizing figure, added Laura Stephenson, Political Science professor and undergraduate program chair. But while some Conservatives might not be interested in his brand of conservatism, he has remained “in check” so far, so it is hard to gauge where his base of support stands.

“I’m not counting anything out just yet. But what it does look like is so far, for Ford or the party managing him, things do seem to be working as they should. People are really tired of the Liberals. They were tired of the Liberals before. This isn’t new. It’s been time for a change for a while and legitimately, if you look at the way governments often cycle, it really is time for a change. Even under better circumstances, you might still expect that,” Stephenson said.

She agreed with de Clercy, however, that anything is possible, even with a desire for change being the only clear message out of this election cycle.

“Tory support has been fairly consistent. It does seem that Horwath is not disliked. There’s reasons people dislike Ford, there’s reasons people dislike Wynne, but we haven’t heard a lot of anti- Horwath. As a candidate, she’s probably got the most going for her. I think the party in her case might be the reason people are not flocking to the NDP, or what people think the party stands for might be kind of unclear,” Stephenson continued.

“But people aren’t sure where they are going. The Liberals did have a lot of support. Ford’s election opens up some questions. If you think of the Liberals at the centre, and the PCs a little bit to the right, and the NDP as a little bit to the left, people who are deserting the Liberals, have two different directions to go that are legitimately different and stand for different things. I’m not counting anything out just yet.”

Locally, it will also be interesting to see how the campaign of Susan Truppe, former MP for London North Centre, plays out, now that she is running for MPP, de Clercy added.

“She is kind of an interesting case. Ms. Truppe was most recently the federal MP for pretty-much the same (geographic) area and the voters voted her out of office in 2015. I’m interested to see how does she package herself to the same group that basically fired her a few years ago. This is the downside of having name recognition.”

She is particularly interested in the gender split between male and female voters of the election outcome.

“If you look at Wynne’s policy, the broad policy planks she put together over serval years, for women in particular, there were several polices or issues her government actively addressed. What happens to women voters with a female Premier facing re-election? That will be interesting and I have zero predictions. But it will be an important factor,” she noted.

“Polling shows clearly, all things being equal, women are a bit more inclined to favour ‘not-Ford,’ and men are somewhat more inclined to favour Mr. Ford.”