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Just What Is Going On In Ontario?

When working on polls, we often talk about the distinction between knowns and unknowns. In between, there are our hunches, guesses, and gut feelings. This most certainly applies to the upcoming Ontario election, as the poll we released last week showing the PCs at 50%, the governing Liberals at 24%, and the NDP at 18%.

This is what we do know: the PCs will start the election with a significant lead that is undoubtedly real. They have had a strong lead for the better part of two years, and none of the events of this year have chipped into this lead. This includes the ouster of Patrick Brown, the election of Doug Ford as leader, the heated debate with small business over the minimum wage, and the recent plethora of promises made by Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals. The lead is so significant that there may not be enough runway left for the Liberals or the NDP to catch up. While some journalists have praised us for not declaring the election to be over before it has begun, we are not naïve in thinking all parties are starting on a level playing field. Let’s be clear: the Liberals’ chances of winning another term are in serious jeopardy. Parties that are this far behind generally tend not to win, although comebacks do happen.

What we also know is that some of the PCs’ support is ephemeral. The large gap between the PCs and the Liberals that exists today may shrink by the time the election closes. We know that it is ephemeral because of Doug Ford’s low favourability numbers. I can’t remember a time when the leader of a party was this far behind his party’s numbers, especially when the party is at 50%. A significant part of the PC support may be as much an anti-Liberal sentiment as an endorsement of Doug Ford and the PC agenda.

Think about that number. 50%. That looks like consensus, and we think that consensus is a good thing in a modern democracy, given the hyper partisanship that exists these days. Brian Mulroney got 50% of the vote in 1984, but the country then seemed like it was coming together after a rough start to the 1980s. Canada felt good about making a change. As Mulroney himself stated in that campaign, 1984 was a time for healing and civility in this diverse and quarrelsome land.

“Respect for taxpayers” doesn’t quite sound so poetic.

But my hunch is that this is not what is happening in Ontario today. Mulroney was popular in 1984, Ford sure is not. My gut tells me that the support is not based on positive vibes about turning over a new leaf and doing things differently. Ontarians want change all right, but it seems they just want rid of the Liberals. I don’t get the sense that Ontarians want to take a bold step into a brave new world. Instead, they seem to be mad about everything. As popular as Mulroney was in 1984, Peter Newman writes that by 1991 people hated Mulroney so much that people would blame him for their cars not starting in the winter. Ontarians might feel the same about Kathleen Wynne, despite her popularity in 2014. Our surveys show that Ontarians do not like Ford, but they really don’t like Wynne. Nearly two out of three Ontarians have a negative opinion of her.

This kind of mood doesn’t lend itself to a campaign where there is rational debate of policies and values. Expect vitriol, platitudes, slogans, and more clichés than you know what to do with. After all, voter anger doesn’t usually create the foundation for careful discussion and debate. Ontarians aren’t in a mood for listening. We know this from how poorly Ontarians received the latest budget. It was an election budget all right, with Wynne and the Liberals pouring out the horn of plenty at the feet of Ontarians. But our poll showed that 53% of Ontarians said that they were less likely to vote Liberal after seeing the budget.

Ontarians are so angry that they might have decided to tune out Wynne and the Liberals entirely. This is bad news for the Liberals, because this means there is little they can do or say to convince voters to come back to the fold. They can’t make more promises, explain more clearly, or draw stronger contrasts to the alternatives. Ontarians don’t want to listen. This likely means that the Liberals can’t win this election on their own. But Doug Ford and the PCs could lose it with blunders, missteps, and gaffes on their own.

This is possible. Remember Patrick Brown was supposed to be Premier too. What remains unknown for us is how long does this anger last, how much of this support will fade away, will some of this support go to the Liberals or the NDP, and does it happen soon enough to make a difference in the election. We also found that Andrea Horwath’s favourability numbers are positive, but most Ontarians do not know her well. The NDP’s second choice numbers are also good, which means that angry progressives may decide that they want change and vote for the NDP. Their anger might calm down if Ford’s low favourability really becomes an issue and may not vote for him out of fear of what a Ford-led Ontario looks like. They may also calm down and decide that they don’t have it so bad under Wynne and give the Liberals another go, or they decide that the NDP represents the kind of change they want and they don’t have to vote for Ford to boot. Or they may calm down and still vote PC in June.

Yes, the PCs are at 50%, but we can’t say Ontario is united behind Doug Ford. We see anger instead of unity, cynicism instead of hope. Voter anger usually leads to more volatility, so expect there to be some movement in our polling. Where that support moves to remains unknown.