Just nine days remain in the Ontario election campaign, not a lot of time for the race to shift dramatically, but Liberal and NDP strategists claim it’s enough time.
Both those parties hoped that they would have definitively left the other in the dust by this point in the campaign, and sitting within clear striking distance of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives.
It hasn’t worked out that way. The story of the race so far is how little has changed since the campaign period officially began nearly three weeks ago.
According to the CBC News Ontario Poll Tracker (which averages publicly available polls) the PCs have consistently led Steven Del Duca’s Liberals province-wide by a margin that has never dropped below seven percentage points.
Meanwhile the Liberals have been unable to open up a gap of more than five points over Andrea Horwath and her steadily-third-place New Democrats.
Still, both the Liberals and NDP insist they see a path to prevent a second term for Ford’s Progressive Conservatives.
“We see enough seats available in strategic regions for us to be able to block Ford from a majority, by sliding NDP voters over to vote Liberal,” said a Liberal campaign official. (Party insiders interviewed for this story agreed to discuss their strategies only on condition of anonymity.)
“Voters remember 2018 when voting NDP did nothing to stop the Conservatives,” said the Liberal.
An NDP strategist said the next nine days will involve their party aiming to pitch its dental, pharmacare and mental health proposals as a way of making life more affordable.
“For us, the last part of this campaign is going to be pushing really hard on our strengths and matching our strengths to the cost of living and affordability,” said the New Democrat.
Both strategists admit that the level of engagement in the campaign among Ontario voters has been rather low so far and that capturing the imagination of the electorate has been anything but easy.
There’s an old saying among political parties and their election teams: “campaigns matter.” Yet nothing seems to have mattered enough to sway overall voter intention dramatically, at least not so far.
“There has been almost no movement in party support since the day the election was called,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, in a tweet Monday. “Voters are tuned out and neither big opposition party has created significant interest in change.”
For Ford and his team, that is a winning scenario.
The PC campaign was pretty much on cruise control over the long weekend. Ford’s schedule Monday had him campaigning in his own riding, and two other Toronto ridings, with no events open to media.
After questions were raised about why he hadn’t visited any of the places affected by Saturday’s deadly storm, Ford went to Uxbridge Monday afternoon.
The PC campaign would benefit greatly should the NDP-Liberal vote split on election night turn out the same way as suggested by the current polls. It could see Ford’s PCs win as many or more seats than in 2018 with a smaller share of the popular vote.
For the Liberals, the ideal situation was for the NDP’s support to have collapsed by now, sending a signal to voters who want to prevent Ford from winning another term that the only way to do it is to vote for Liberal.
After Horwath’s debate night performance, Liberal campaign operatives were predicting the gap would widen. Then when Horwath was sidelined from in-person campaigning by testing positive for COVID-19, it also seemed luck was not on the New Democrats’ side.
Yet the NDP’s province-wide polling numbers remained relatively steady. While those numbers are hardly what the New Democrats wanted, they’re not as low as what the Liberals were gunning for either.
In the early stages of the campaign, NDP strategists tried to persuade reporters and the public that they were best positioned to defeat Ford by virtue of the 40 seats they won in 2018 and the 10 other ridings where the NDP candidate trailed the PC winner by a margin of less than six per cent.
That pitch hasn’t translated into a surge in the polls for the NDP, although there are regions where Poll Tracker finds the NDP ahead of the Liberals, including southwestern and northern Ontario, as well as Hamilton-Niagara.
The Liberal strategist insists that their campaign is satisfied with where the party sits, claiming that so long as the Liberals aren’t tied with the NDP headed into the home stretch, the anti-Ford vote will coalesce around them in the final days.
The New Democrat strategist is frustrated at some of the Liberal campaign tactics.
“It is enraging people to see Steven Del Duca spending his time and energy trying to take down NDP MPPs,” the strategist said.
“If he was really on a mission to take down Doug Ford, he would be spending all his time campaigning in PC-held seats.”
The prospect that the NDP and Liberals could fight to a stalemate over second place bothers Tim Ellis, founder of Not One Seat, a volunteer-run group aiming to encourage strategic voting against the PCs.
“The opposition parties have struggled to break out because they’ve been busy attacking each other,” Ellis said in an interview Monday.
“This is the time they could really shake up the race,” Ellis added. “They could really stand out and make a difference by pledging right now to work together to defeat Ford. That is what voters are looking for.”