Ontario Politics – It’s about the economy and cost of living.

We have been polling the mood of the Ontario electorate for a few months now for a number of corporate clients and the results have been really interesting.  I can’t share too much of the details but with all the talk of a spring election and the Liberals running on raising taxes for transit, I thought Abacus Insider readers would appreciate the insight we’ve pulled from the data.

The general mood in Ontario is one of cautious optimism but also frustration.  The public is generally unhappy with the direction of the province.  While current economic evaluations are not poor, few people describe the state of the Ontario economy as good and most think the economy in the next six months will neither improve nor get worse.  For about a third of Ontarians, the economic problems are perceived to be so bad, that they don’t believe any one party can quickly fix them.

Top Issues: Health, the economy, and accountability…and don’t forget cost of living.

It is no surprise then that the economy and job creation are top concerns for many voters.  When we asked respondents to rank their top five most important issues, health care was ranked in the top 5 a large majority of respondents, followed by job creation and economic growth and accountability in government.  Other economic issues were prominent as well including the budget deficit and provincial debt, gas prices , retirement security, and electricity prices.

Along with economic growth and job creation, there is also a growing concern about cost of living and consumer issues.  For example, one in five respondents ranked cost of living issues like gas prices, electricity rates, and affordable housing as their top ranked concerned.  Taken together, cost of living is as important an issue as economic growth and jobs.

Moving to the political component of the economy, voters are split on which party they trust the most to manage the economy.  The PCs, Liberals, and NDP were all within four percentage points of each other with about one in three respondents saying they are unsure which party they trust the most.  When it came to the party voters least trusted to manage the economy, voters were split between the PCs and the Liberals.  The NDP was well back in third place.  An interesting position for the NDP – almost tied with the other parties on most trusted but well back on least trusted to manage the economy.

When voters are asked why they believe Ontario has been struggling economically, the issues constantly raised were the provincial budget deficit, the price of electricity, red tape and business regulations, and housing affordability.  On all these issues, the Ontario Liberal Government was perceived to have performed poorly by a majority of respondents.

Another interesting dynamic is whether Premier Wynne has given her party a boost in support.  Most voters believe that the policies pursued by Ontario Liberals, either with McGuinty or Wynne at the helm, have hurt the provincial economy.  And while voters generally believe Wynne is a “better” premier than McGuinty, they don’t distinguish the two leaders on policy.  Most think they are taking the same approach when it comes to economic policy.  This is a major challenge for Premier Wynne as she tries to separate herself from the McGuinty legacy and reinforces the message the Tories are trying to tell about Wynne being just a clone of McGuinty.

Perceptions about Improving the Economy

The Heinz plant in Leamington, ON slated for closure.

When respondents are asked their opinion on how to improve the economy, a large majority of Ontarians supported government action that would stop making new laws and regulations that make it more costly to do business in Ontario.  Support was also high for reducing business regulations that make it more costly to do business and for new spending on infrastructure.  Only a minority of Ontarians support lowering corporate income taxes as a way to grow the Ontario economy.

With the recent closing of manufacturing plants across the province, Ontarians recognize that the cost of doing business in Ontario is driving jobs out of the province.  They are looking for their government to do something to improve the economic climate in the province and think that any new laws or regulations that make it more costly to do business in the province should be stopped.

Strategic Considerations for the Three Main Political Parties

Liberals

Specifically, for the Ontario Liberals, one in four of those who voted Liberal in 2011 believe the province is off on the wrong track.  About one in four eligible voters would consider voting Liberal – which is larger than the Tories’ accessible pool of voters but smaller than the NDP’s.  The Liberal Party relies on support from Toronto residents and those with a university education. Perhaps most challenging for the Liberal Party is the fact that only about one in five eligible voters in Ontario believe Ontario is a better place since Dalton McGuinty became premier 10 years ago.  Another third believe it is a worse place while one in three think it is about the same as the PCs left it when they lost in 2003.

Advice to the OLP: 

Stop doing things that reinforce the image that OLP policy is driving businesses out of Ontario.  You are giving the Tories and the NDP plenty of room to persuade swing voters in the GTA and in SW Ontario that Liberal policies are costing jobs and raising the costs of living.  Present an alternative economic plan that differentiates Premier Wynne from Dalton McGuinty while contrasting the NDP and PC approach.  Right now, voters outside of Toronto don’t see the OLP economic plan as taking the best of conservatism and social democracy;  they just see it as a failure.

Tories

The PC Party of Ontario faces a more daunting challenge despite not having to deal with the various controversies faced by the governing Liberals.  The PCs have the smallest pool of accessible voters but are best at converting that potential support into actual support.  The party’s potential is smallest but its core is the largest.  Tim Hudak, it’s leader, has the weakest personal leadership numbers with a quarter of eligible voters saying they have a positive impression of him.  The party’s strength is in Southwestern and Eastern Ontario, among suburban voters, and among older voters but it continues to do poorly in Toronto, among women, and among voters under the age of 45.

Advice to the PCs:

Tim Hudak’s performance has been improving but voters won’t really start paying attention until the campaign begins.  Hudak’s numbers won’t move until that time so stop worrying about your leader’s personal numbers.  They are bad, but won’t change until voters are open to changing their impression.  The first week of the campaign will be critical for shifting impressions of Hudak and positioning him as an alternative Premier.  In the meantime, offer voters a plan that puts the economy first and will reduce the cost of living for voters. Don’t let the NDP become the consumer party.  Keep standing up for suburban and rural voters – they present the largest opportunity for growth.

NDP

The Ontario NDP is the best positioned of the three main parties in the province.  It has the largest pool of accessible voter and has the most popular leader in Andrea Horwath.  Once a liability, the NDP has slowly improved its standing as economic managers and is now basically tied with the other two parties on which party voters trust the most to manage the economy.  NDP support is strongest in Northern Ontario, but it also has large pockets of support in Southwestern Ontario and in the GTA/ Hamilton/Niagara region of the province.  They also lead among female voters.

Advice to the NDP:

Don’t appear risky.  Be the safe alternative to the Liberals.  Voters are leery of new regulations and laws that they believe curb economic growth.  They are in no mood to test unproven policy experiments and should, when necessary, find opportunities to appear more competent than the Liberals on all things related to economic growth and job creation.  Don’t give your opponents an opening to remind older voters of the Bob Rae days.  To many who lived through the early 1990s, the Ontario NDP is on thin ice that one bad move or policy proposal could crack.