Ontario Election 2018 – Week 2: The Ballot Question Shifts

As week two of the Ontario election campaign progresses, there is a palpable shift happening in the ballot question from ‘Do you want change?’ to ‘What kind of change do you want?’.  That’s bad news if you’re the Liberals, potentially good news for the NDP, and casts some uncertainty over the Ontario PC campaign.

Polls have begun to show the NDP in second place for the first time since the 1990’s. However, it’s still early in the campaign and too much emphasis shouldn’t be placed on any one poll.  While the three leaders have managed to avoid any major gaffes thus far, 21 days remain until E-Day which gives leaders plenty of time to make good, and bad impressions on Ontario voters.

Keep an eye on the StrategyCorp poll tracker to stay up-to-date on the latest read of where the election campaign is headed as we get closer to June 7th.

Liberal Campaign

There is no doubt that the Liberals are facing the  toughest challenge heading into this election after 15 years of government. This time around, Kathleen Wynne is facing stronger competition from both sides of the spectrum.  The NDP have released a progressive platform that closely mirrors the Liberal’s priorities.  PC leader Doug Ford is polling favourably with his “for the people” message.  The challenge for the Liberals is whether they can fight a two-front war.  Can they attack Ford while trying to stop progressive votes bleeding to Andrea Horwath and the NDP?

Voters and politicos should not discount the relationships that the Liberals have built over the last 15 years with voters, industry and labour groups, and businesses who have benefited positively from the Liberal party’s investments. The Liberals will require the support of these groups to keep their seats in traditional Liberal ridings across the province.

However, campaigns matter and there are still three weeks to go in the election.  For the Liberals to succeed, they need to stop the apparent early trend of their support shifting to the NDP.  This requires Wynne to strongly contrast her record, experience and agenda with Horwath, in an attempt to sway progressive voters back to the party.  She can point to the strength of Ontario’s economy and job growth as evidence that they have been successful in creating a positive future for Ontarians.

A sign of Liberal confidence in the coming days could be whether talent from outside the provincial party is imported to try and shift momentum.  One federal Liberal Chief of Staff has taken a leave to join the Wynne campaign, and we will see if additional federal Liberal staff, or senior members of previous campaigns join the central campaign team.

NDP campaign

Both in tone and in tactics, the Ontario NDP is running a different kind of campaign than they have in the past. Based on week one, it appears to be working to attract a sizable group of soft-Liberal voters away from Wynne.

Before the campaign began, Andrea Horwath declared the party was “in it to win it” with the best funded campaign in its history. A large portion of that war chest is funding an ambitious air war with two ads (“Dodgeball” and “Imagine”) already in heavy rotation on television and on social media. For its ground war effort, the NDP has put the leader’s tour into non-incumbent ridings to boost the fortunes of local candidates in communities including Sudbury, Brampton, Brantford and Sarnia.

Typified by the “Imagine” ad, the campaign is striking a deliberately optimistic tone. While reserving appropriate space to poke at her opponents, Horwath is levering an ambitious platform with components including universal drug coverage, a comprehensive transit platform, and fixing senior care – in an attempt to attract “time for change” voters in Liberal and Red Tory camps who are looking for a progressive vision for the province.

PC Campaign

As before, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mantra must remain top of mind for the Ontario PCs.  PC leader Doug Ford remained focused on messages that tap into discontent and feelings of disenfranchisement with the Liberal government.

However, after week one, the NDP have emerged as a viable choice for voters who can’t bring themselves to vote Liberal, but also simply can’t cast a vote for Ford.  There is increasing momentum among progressive voters in support of an “anyone but Ford” movement.  The challenge for Team Ford is the need to position their leader as the only one who has the best interests of ordinary “folks” at heart – especially to Ontarians who want change but are nervous about voting Ford.

PC headquarters is closely monitoring Andrea Horwath and have pivoted attacks towards the NDP, branding them as extremists and recalling the experience of the last NDP government.  As numbers tighten, look for the NDP campaign – the leader, candidates and commitments – to face greater scrutiny from the Tories.

During this week, Ford outlined several key policy commitments including the PC transit plan and tax cuts for the middle class.  Commitments align with the ‘small-c’ values that we expected.  Ford will be pushing these values in contrast to the NDP, who he will characterize as a ‘tax and spend’ party that is reckless and unprepared to form government.

On the campaign trail, there have been some gaffes (paid actors as supporters, questionable comments about immigration in Northern Ontario and dropping one PC candidate in Brampton East), although these seem to have little effect on Ford’s core support. Similarly, the first two debates did not seem to affect his support.

As we draw nearer to E-day and voters begin to pay attention, it is anticipated that the PC campaign will look to tighten its messaging and campaign activities to manage risk.  They will also look to position Ford as the responsible change candidate, ready to lead the next government of Ontario.

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