Political Battlegrounds Take Shape

All three campaigns experienced some bumps during the first week, which, given the anticipation of the campaign, is hard to understand. Mistakes made in week one are infrequently fatal, but if they persist, the reputational damage to a party may be impossible to repair.

Time is the currency of election campaigns, where every second represents an opportunity to spread your message to target voters.

Each campaign meticulously researches the hopes, aspirations and policy preferences of voters, with a view to determining who among the population are accessible to them, who can be persuaded to vote for their party. Such targeting allows political parties to tailor messaging, advertising and their leaders’ tour to reach those voters specifically, while often times ignoring the rest of the population.

Election campaigns are about making choices in order to deploy limited resources, and for this reason the ridings and images (TV coverage, photos) each party selects reveal much about who they think they need to reach to win the campaign, which ridings they believe are essential to win, and what issues are important to target voters. Key battlegrounds in southern Ontario emerged with all three parties visiting the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Leaders attempted to launch their campaigns with a focus on defining themes and differences, with jobs, transit and pocketbook issues rising to the fore.

Liberals Pick Fight with Federal Conservatives

Wynne’s campaign got off to a relatively smooth operational start.  However, it was somewhat surprising that the Liberals’ initial focus was on separating themselves from the right with regard to their Ontario pension proposal, rather than building on the momentum of a centre-left budget that the New Democrats had difficulty justifying their opposition to.

Old school politics teaches us that it’s always helpful to have a foil. This is especially true when running on your track record is less desirable, and Dalton McGuinty’s legacy would not be the Wynne team’s first choice. The opponent the Liberals have picked to run against is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, banking on a decline in his popularity to help lift the provincial Liberals. This strategy also helps to remind people that Wynne is the Premier, and elevates her stature vis-a-vis the other leaders.

That the federal Conservatives have engaged in a war of words with Wynne is in stark contrast to the radio silence from all federal parties during the recent provincial election in Quebec.  It’s a strategy that could pay dividends should voters conclude that they have had enough of Conservatives and that Hudak is just another Harper.

However, while Wynne is technically not running against the Prime Minister, she certainly appears to be running away from her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty. The media have entertained themselves trying to get Wynne to mention the former Premier by name, which she finally did on Wednesday. To the delight of her opponents, one of Wynne’s first campaign stops was Ottawa South, McGuinty’s old seat. While some may view this as a curious attempt to “bell the cat,” it might also be reflective of the fact that the PCs came within a hair’s breadth of winning that seat in a by-election last year and the Liberal Party is anxious to cement their support in that riding.

Progressive Conservatives Focus on Jobs Amid Campaign Distractions

Well known for his message discipline, Hudak began the campaign squarely focused on the PC Party’s “Million Jobs Plan.”  However, a number of small operational gaffes over consecutive days caused some unwanted distractions for the PC Leader, and the news media were able to exploit the tension between his opposition to “corporate welfare” and his use of Ontario businesses that had received government subsidies as campaign backdrops.

If Hudak is able to find his voice on this issue, it could eventually work to his benefit. In the 2011 general election, Hudak took a major hit for being unwilling to offer a contrast with the Liberals, and both parties pretended that the budget deficit wasn’t a problem. This time out, he has vowed to tell voters what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. This somewhat rocky start helped sideline Hudak’s ability to articulate the PC Party plan.  We anticipate that Hudak will remain faithful to his key message – only the PC Party has a plan to create jobs and grow the economy – over the course of the campaign in an effort to make the election a choice on who is best to bring jobs back to Ontario.

New Democratic Party Leader under the Media Microscope

Horwath is under greater media scrutiny than in the past.  Since she announced the NDP would not support the 2014 budget, the political news media have dissected Horwath’s rationale and taken her to task for claiming that the Liberals wanted to privatize the Toronto Transit Commission.

Political observers believe that the NDP is a more serious contender for government this time and that she was treated too easily by the Queen’s Park press gallery in the lead up to October 2011 election. Horwath’s treatment is different this time out and the media are giving her much greater scrutiny. It is possible that the NDP had hoped to ride a similar wave that carried Bob Rae to power in 1990: put people first, support “populist” policies, keep your head down and become the none-of-the-above choice, while the PCs and Liberals beat each other up. This strategy will be challenging if the media maintain their focus on Horwath.

From a policy perspective, Horwath announced that she would raise Ontario’s minimum wage over two years to $12 per hour and index it to inflation, along with a corresponding reduction in the small business tax rate to three per cent over two years.  This was in response to the Liberal’s announced hike in the minimum wage in January, while also reflecting her desire not to alienate small business owners.  This dual announcement is a marked shift from the party’s past and represents the more populist direction in which Horwath has taken the NDP.

Polling – An Inexact Science

Over the next six weeks polling fever will take hold as pollsters, media and parties try to get a read on the pulse of Ontario voters and determine the frontrunner. The reality, however, is that these advance polls are rarely a true picture of what can and will happen on Election Day.

The election campaign cycle is fluid and a large percentage of voters are not tied to any one political party.  As platforms take shape, policies are released, promises are made, and missteps or controversies get publicized, the electorate often becomes increasingly undecided until Election Day, when they have to make a decision. Moreover, seat projection models used by pollsters are primitive and often vary wildly.

If historical polling data from the last three years are any indication, early polling may be a useful snapshot of a moment in the campaign, but typically does not predict a clear party winner on Election Day.

Election Campaign Period Polling At Start of Campaign Result
Quebec March 5 – April 7, 2014 – Parti Quebecois support polled at 37%; Liberal support at 35% – Most analysts projected the strong PQ support among francophone voters to propel Pauline Marois into a majority government Liberals won a majority government
British Columbia April 16 – May 14, 2013 – NDP support hovered just below 50%; Liberal support just below 30% Liberals won a majority government
Alberta March 26 – April 23, 2012 – Wildrose Party had a clear lead over the PCs ( approximately 10 points) – According to polling, this lead continued through to election day PCs won a majority government
Federal March 26 – May 2, 2011 – PCs polling in high 30s; Liberals in mid to high 20s; NDP polling under 20% – NDP support began surging mid-April PCs won a majority government; NDP became official opposition (Liberals finished third for first time in history)
Ontario Sept 7 – Oct 6, 2011 – PCs consistently polled about 5 percentage points ahead of the Liberals before the campaign Liberals won a minority government, one seat shy of a majority

Political Advertising War in Blackout Period

Political advertising is on hold as Ontario election law mandates a blackout period at the start and end of the campaign.  While circumstances vary from election to election, in this campaign no TV or radio advertising will be allowed until noon on May 20th.

Conventional wisdom says that this may benefit the PCs and NDP, while hurting the Liberals – largely because the Liberals have the biggest campaign war chest and a shorter ad period will allow the PCs and NDP to concentrate their more limited funds in that short window leading up to Election Day.

However, others argue that the PC Leader is in greatest need of reintroduction to Ontario voters, and a shorter period of time for broadcast advertising will hamper his ability to reintroduce himself.

Of note, this ad blackout doesn’t apply to Internet ads if they are posted before (and not altered) during the blackout period.  Expect to see the online campaigns stay active until the blackout lifts and the TV and radio air wars begin.

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