Ontario Election Roundup: Unpredictability is the Word

The opening round of this Ontario election battle has been well worth watching.  Anyone who says they know how this election will turn out is truly only guessing, as I see it, because many voters have not yet turned their attention to the choices on offer.

If it’s too early to tell how things will end up, it’s not too early to talk about what’s happened so far and how some of the positions taken and campaign messages might influence voters.  Here are a few things that have struck me so far.

In our polling, it’s clear that many voters think the economy is under performing. While this is usually a pretty good indicator of a desire for change, it’s critical to understand the psychology of how voters think about politicians and the economy.  It’s far from a binary situation – there’s more nuance than one might think.

When the economy is terrible, voters think almost anything would be better, and this is usually when change happens electorally.  However, when people think the economy is weak (but not terrible) we can often see different, more tentative instincts.  Voters want the economy to get better, but for those who are employed and able to pay their bills, there’s also some fear that it could get worse, with the wrong measures.

This is the context in which Tim Hudak’s Million Jobs Plan has landed.  The challenge he’s facing is that his formula may sound great to the most conservative voters, but a leap of faith for others.  To some ears, it may sound like harsh medicine, the kind of thing that feels like it could produce hard times rather than good times.

Anyone who says they know how this election will turn out is truly only guessing, as I see it, because many voters have not yet turned their attention to the choices on offer.

Anyone who says they know how this election will turn out is truly only guessing, as I see it, because many voters have not yet turned their attention to the choices on offer.

Uncertain voters may want to believe in the Million Jobs upside, but they don’t know if that’s more than a slogan, and haven’t yet developed a sense of confidence in Mr. Hudak’s economic judgment.   Moreover, while they don’t know they can truly count on the million new jobs, they are sure they can count on the 100,000 job cuts he’s promising.

For some voters, Mr. Hudak’s plan is an encouraging signal of more fiscal discipline and a promise of better times to come. For others, it sounds like mass layoffs, longer hospital wait times, bigger class sizes and fewer consumers with money to spend.  Polling so far suggests that if this election was tomorrow and it turned on his economic plan, he just might fall short of a victory once again – so his work is cut out for him.

Kathleen Wynne main effort so far is about ensuring this election is about anything but Dalton McGuinty and his last years in office.  Liberal ads profile Wynne, far more than the party, and this has paid off somewhat.  A remarkable number of voters already see her as an improvement over her predecessor (40%), despite the fact that the economy has not noticeably improved in the year or so that she has been Premier. If she is allowed to not run on the Liberal record she will jump at the chance.  To date, her opponents have mostly given her that gift.

For the NDP, there seem to be big challenges to overcome.  First, there are plenty of progressive voters in Ontario, but only about 1 in 5 who might consider themselves left wing.  The party, not unlike the Conservatives, has to motivate a leftist base and at the same time reassure those in the middle of the spectrum that an NDP change would not be too radical.  Doing this requires great communications skills and a handful of marquis policies that show how to bridge these perspectives.  So far, there’s little evidence that the NDP has been getting this job done.

Bottom line? There’s plenty of time left for opinion to form, and even re-form.  Leaders have had a chance to work out kinks in their campaigns and road test their messages. This is the period of time when the campaign teams need to be able to be clear eyed about how they are doing and concentrate on what they might need to do differently, to be more effective.  The race ahead looks interesting, to say the least.

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

Download all our releases from the week

1. Ontario Liberals and PCs tied at 33%

2. Wynne ahead as best Premier

3. Top Election Issues: Jobs and the Economy