As Ontario enters the final week of the general election campaign, political observers are assessing whether Tuesday’s leader’s debate will have an impact on the final outcome. While the consensus view is that PC Leader Tim Hudak emerged as the debate’s victor, it is unclear whether his performance will be enough to put his party in the lead. History tells us that seldom do elections turn on debates, the exception being the 1984 debate when Brian Mulroney delivered a knock-out punch to John Turner.

In this debate the only Leader who would have been able to make a demonstrable difference to the campaign would have been Andrea Horwath. While the NDP Leader had a reasonably good performance, it is unclear whether she delivered enough to propel her party back into the race.

The final ten days of any campaign are the only time the majority of the electorate is engaged. It is not surprising then, that this is also the time of greatest advertising saturation. It’s also a time when every action is magnified in its importance. That the debate occurred during this period is unusual as generally incumbents prefer to have the debate out of the way in case there has been a major failure, and opposition parties believe that they can build on the debate as an attention-getter, so they also prefer earlier debates. The Stanley Cup and NBA Finals had a much bigger impact on timing than any other factor and consequently we have only a week left for Parties to capitalize on the results.

Wynne Stumbles in Debate, Makes Two Important Commitments

Subsequent to a debate performance that included a stumble over the gas plants cancellations, Premier Kathleen Wynne made two important commitments:

  1. In the event that the Liberals are returned to government, Wynne will reintroduce the Liberals’ 2014 Budget within 20 days of the election; and
  2. should her party fail to win a plurality of the Legislature’s seats, Wynne said that she would not exercise her right to try to form government, and would instead allow whichever party wins the most seats to attempt to form government.

Each of these is a clear message to left-of-center voters: vote Liberal to get the policy agenda you want, and don’t split your vote between the Liberals and NDP because if you do, Hudak will form the next government.

Hudak Wins Debate, Promises to Resign if He Doesn’t Implement His Plan

Most Conservatives were pleased with Hudak’s performance in Tuesday’s debate, and welcomed the change in momentum following the previous week’s challenges. At the debate Hudak committed to resign should he fail to implement his Million Jobs Plan. Given his platform is an eight-year plan, he presumably would have two full terms to fulfill this promise. Traditionally, the PC brand has benefitted from a perception among voters (largely dating back to the Harris government) that Conservatives keep their election promises, and Hudak’s promise was likely an attempt to enhance that perception among voters and to try and move the focus away from the math challenges associated with his one million jobs calculation. But it was also a clear attempt to differentiate the PC Leader from Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals on the accountability issue, one on which the Liberals are particularly vulnerable.

Horwath Claims NDP Can Still Win, Says She Won’t Support Either PCs or Liberals

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath failed to change the trajectory of the NDP’s election strategy with the debate, and has since redoubled her efforts to differentiate her party from the Liberals and PCs in an effort to attract voters. Her key message – “the NDP is in it to win it” – and her insistence that she would not support the PCs or the Liberals, should either of them win, marks a shift for the New Democrats, who have propped up the minority Liberals since 2011. And, while her rivals have committed to their budgets as their first priority, Horwath has said she would instead focus on cleaning up corruption and bringing accountability to Queen’s Park.

This is the main issue on which Horwath is attempting to draw the distinction between herself and Wynne: ‘The Liberals are corrupt and can’t be trusted to look after ‘your’ interests,’ buttressing this argument with promises to protect the public purse from political partisanship, including the use of government funds for ‘partisan’ style advertising, and an expanded role for the Ombudsman.

OPPA Generates Controversy Through Social Media

Despite the fact that the Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA, the union representing civilian and non-commissioned uniformed members of the OPP) launched their two ads targeting Tim Hudak only on YouTube, this simple social media tactic generated a significant amount of earned media coverage and debate. Many commentators were shocked at the tactic by police who generally do not engage at the Provincial level, thought they have done so previously at the local level. Subsequent to the release of the ads, the OPPA had to correct them to distinguish the sponsor as the OPPA, rather than the OPP.

The ads may be backfiring as transcripts have emerged that led the PCs to suggest there may have been coordination between the OPPA and the Liberal Party, something that has been denied by both parties. The issue has breathed some life into the Hudak commitment to freeze public sector wages and benefits for two years, and provided the opportunity for him to state that no one would receive special treatment or exemptions.

GOTV

Over the next several days, you will likely hear a lot of the initialism: GOTV. Efforts to “Get Out The Vote” are often used by pundits to hedge their bets, and by parties to convince their supporters that the outcome is far from certain. Considering that the Liberals and PCs are so close in the polls, GOTV efforts will play an important role in this campaign.

The PCs have run a campaign focused on their base, and much of their electoral success will be predicated on a large percentage of those supporters turning out to vote. We presume the Liberals have been spending a great deal of time identifying swing NDP and Liberal voters, and the NDP doing the same with disaffected Liberals and those attracted to their populist policies, particularly in Southwest Ontario. With their voters identified, they will need to get them to the polls.

In an age of increasing voter apathy and declining turnout, even pollsters are struggling to predict outcomes. The impact of voter turnout and vote splitting among parties will have a bigger impact in this campaign than ever before. Will the PC vote turn out in bigger numbers than 2011? Will Liberals voters stay home? Will undecided hold their noses and vote for a less ideal candidate or simply not vote at all? The answers to these questions will likely be the basis for much explaining by pollsters for the accuracy (or lack thereof) of predictions leading up to June 12.

Political Advertising Blackout to Return

Under provincial law, a political advertising blackout period will begin first thing on June 11th and last through Election Day (June 12th). Like the previous blackout period, this one largely involves broadcast advertising, and will apply to third parties (e.g., Working Families Coalition) as well as political parties. In addition, the publication of new election surveys results will be prohibited on June 12th.

Summer Session at Queen’s Park Looking Likely

It is looking like it will be a busy July at Queens Park. The notoriously bad climate controls at “The Pink Palace” will be put to the test should the Liberals or Conservatives form government. Should they win, both parties have stated their intention to introduce a budget soon after the election. In a Tory minority context, Wynne’s decision to allow whoever wins the most seats to attempt to form government should reduce the drama of a minority government in the days immediately following the election, but that drama could return very quickly.

A PC government would presumably mean a budget that would start to implement the Million Jobs Plan, something the Liberals and NDP might find extremely difficult to support. A Liberal government would mean a return to the May 1st budget, which was opposed by the NDP almost immediately after its introduction. In either case, the question may not be who will form government after the election, but who will be the government if a majority of the legislature does not support a July budget.