Ontario Election Week 3: Air War Begins with a Whimper

This week the air war began with a whimper. Where the previous weeks dished up juicy policies, the television ads unleashed were more strategic than memorable. Each party stuck to its core message, trying to use the power of paid broadcast media to entrench its established direction. As expected, special interest groups stepped up their game and made themselves heard in the political campaign.The veteran Working Families Coalition was joined by their new counterweight, Working Canadians. A wildcard on the airwaves may be other groups, spurred on by the PC platform, that follow the example of the nurses and join the fray.

At the half-way point of the election, it’s difficult to determine where things will end up, but the Liberals and the PCs must be pleased that they’ve been able to execute their respective election strategies and get their messages out. The NDP appears to be off to a rocky start, but they are staying consistent with their approach. Andrea Horwath’s NDP have not captured the media’s attention thus far and have had difficulty getting their message across. But, the campaign is only half over and how well the NDP’s message resonates will have a critical impact on the outcome. Conventional wisdom suggests that the more they can increase their support, the more it will help the PCs.

Ontario Liberal Party

While Premier Kathleen Wynne personally took an equal opportunity approach to criticizing her opponents’ positions in online advertising, the Liberal Party’s TV ad now focuses exclusively on contrasting Wynne with PC Leader Tim Hudak. In the TV ad, called “Build up Ontario” (and 35 radio ads targeting different demographics across the province), Wynne is contrasting her plan – investing in and protecting public services – with Hudak’s pledge to cut 100,000 public sector jobs. By focusing only on Hudak, and not at all on Andrea Horwath, Wynne is sending a message to centre-left voters that she is the best option to stop a PC Party victory.

The Liberals also previously launched two online videos taking aim at the PC’s “Can Tim Hudak be trusted?” and the NDP’s “Andrea Horwath – Not For Real.” In addition, the Liberal party parodied the PC “I want to work – Million Jobs Plan” ad with, “The Video Tim Hudak Doesn’t Want You To See.

Progressive Conservative Party

The PC campaign has launched three advertisements to date, entitled “I Want to Work,” “Hope is on the Way,” and “Male, Pale and Stale”. The former two advertisements demonstrate the PC’s consistent attempt to position themselves as the party with the only credible jobs plan for the province.

Of note, to help counter negative perceptions of Hudak associated with the 2011 general election, the Tories have made significant efforts to portray Hudak as a leader who not only understands the province’s challenges, but also as one who is optimistic about Ontario’s potential and has a positive plan for job creation and economic growth.

The goal is to position Hudak as a leader who may not be loved, but who understands the core challenges of the province and has a credible plan to address them, while also being the only leader strong enough to make the tough decisions that are necessary. The latter ad is an attempt by the PCs to pre-empt the Working Families Coalition’s emerging advertising onslaught by trying to discredit the coalition.

Ontario’s New Democrats

On Thursday of week three, Horwath released the NDP’s policy platform and stayed true to their more recent populism and largely abandoned the traditional NDP focus areas like poverty and the environment. Despite being short on a detailed costing, key highlights include:

  • Increases to the corporate tax rate to 12.5% and halt the phase-out of the HST Input Tax Credits
  • Reducing the Small Business Tax Rate from 4.5% to 3% by 2016
  • Merging four of Ontario’s hydro agencies
  • A 15% auto insurance reduction
  • Creating 1,400 long-term care beds

StrategyCorp has developed a Quick Reference Guide for the NDP platform here. While Andrea Horwath’s campaign slogan is “Makes Sense,” some of her traditional supporters are finding it hard to understand the populist direction in which she continues to take her NDP party. Her “Makes Sense” ad continues the attack on Liberal waste and scandal but does so with a debt-clock-type approach.

The focus on waste and the style of ad attempt to combine an appeal to pocketbook voters while also asking traditional Liberal voters to put the incumbent party in the “penalty box.” Combined with the NDP decision to wrap the traditionally-conservative Toronto Sun with an NDP ad, it is clear Horwath is not just focused on her traditional base and disaffected Liberals, but also blue collar workers.

Interest Group Advertising

Beyond the party advertising, this election is once again seeing the involvement of interest group advertising from labour unions. The most well-known group, the Working Families Coalition (a front for a number of unions), has run millions of dollars in anti-PC Party campaign ads in the past, and this election is no different. Its first ad features a critique of the PC Party’s Million Jobs Plan based on an opinion column from the St. Catharines Standard. The strategy here is straightforward: use their considerable ad buy to seed doubt and concern about PC policies.The Liberals have been the clear beneficiaries of this effort in previous elections; however, it’s not necessarily the case that the same will happen this year.

In response, a new group called Working Canadians has entered the scene with a radio ad in a bid to help counter the influence of the Working Families Coalition. Narrated by Catherine Swift, Chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Working Canadians radio ad calls into question the power and influence unions have had in Ontario over the past several years. Finally, the Ontario Nurses Association has launched its own anti-Hudak radio ad campaign that attempts to tie the PC’s current plan to the Harris government, which consolidated hospital services and closed a number of hospitals.

Upcoming Leaders’ Debate

The debate will be carried live by Ontario TV stations on the evening of June 3rd. Competing against Stanley Cup playoffs and the much-anticipated spring weather, it’s not clear how many voters will actually tune in. However, if the 2011 provincial election debate is any indication, it could be a ratings grab – the 2011 debate was the most-watched program on television that night, and the 2011 federal English language debate generated 26 percent more viewers than the 2008 debate. Twitter has also provided a real-time commentary allowing instant analysis and one-liners to go viral (remember Jack Layton’s “hashtag fail” comment in 2011).

The media and other opinion leaders will certainly be paying attention. While debates rarely ever feature a “knockout punch,” expect the media to use the lead up and post-debate coverage to fuel the political horse-race coverage – who has the most to lose; who won or lost. Bottom line: what dominates the coverage of the debate won’t be policy, but rather personality, quips, quotes, and one-liners. Whether it will have an impact on voter intention remains to be seen, but history shows the opportunity does exist if leaders can capitalize on it.

Additional Northern Debate

With Hudak abstaining from the upcoming Northern debate on Monday – either because he does not think that his party is competitive in the North, and/or because he would like to see the New Democrats pick up seats from the Liberals – Wynne and Horwath will be pitted against each other. This is a situation that the NDP want, as evidenced by the juxtaposition of each of their platform policy proposals with a characterization of the Liberal’s track record on that policy, but it is also one from which the Liberals are not likely to gain, as they would prefer to juxtapose themselves with the Tories.

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