Whether the Ontario Liberal Party decides to go left or right in their upcoming leadership vote could play a big role in determining who will come out on top when the next provincial election is called, likely in the spring.
The prize of leadership is not looking as unimpressive as it did mere weeks ago, when the Liberals were polling in the low-20s and had relinquished the runner-up spot to the surging New Democrats.
But a recent poll from Forum Research shows the Liberals back in contention with 29 per cent support, narrowly edging out the NDP with 27 per cent. At the top of the pile, however, remains the Progressive Conservatives with 35 per cent support, exactly where they stood in October 2011’s provincial election.
Though the cast of leadership hopefuls stands at seven names, three appear to be the early front-runners: Sandra Pupatello, Kathleen Wynne, and Gerard Kennedy. Both Pupatello and Wynne appear to have the best organizations in place, while Kennedy has the highest name recognition outside the party.
Organizational capabilities and support from within the party will be crucial in January’s vote, as it will be party delegates, and not the membership as a whole, that will be casting ballots.
Nevertheless, the Forum poll found Kennedy is the favourite candidate for the party leadership, with 16 per cent selecting him (a large proportion were either undecided or thought none of the candidates were up to snuff). Pupatello finished second with 10 per cent and Wynne third with eight per cent. Among Liberal voters, Kennedy had 25 per cent to Pupatello’s 16 per cent and Wynne’s 13 per cent.
The Ontario Liberals may have benefited from a bump in the polls due to the buzz surrounding the leadership race, and with Kennedy and Wynne among the top contenders (both of whom hail from the left-wing of the party), it is not too surprising this bump has occurred at the expense of the New Democrats.
According to the poll, NDP supporters think Kennedy is the best candidate for the leadership, at 21 per cent to Pupatello’s 10 per cent. That gives him twice the support of Pupatello among NDP voters, compared to the far closer margin among all Ontarians and among Liberal supporters.
Are NDP voters liable to flip to the Liberals? The poll suggests they could be, as only 27 per cent said none of the candidates were their choice for leader. That compares starkly with the 48 per cent of Tory voters who would not admit to preferring one of the Liberal candidates. The potential for more gains at the expense of the NDP, particularly if Kennedy is chosen, is clear.
There is less potential to steal from the pool of PC voters. Kennedy and Pupatello tied with eight per cent apiece among Tory supporters, indicating both candidates have some appeal but that PC voters are far more likely to find Pupatello (from the right-wing of the Liberal Party) appealing.
The Progressive Conservatives will happily take a split between the NDP and Liberals at the polls. The challenge for the next leader of the Liberals will be to push the New Democrats back down to where they were on election night in 2011. But in order to win a majority, rather than another slim minority, he or she will also need to steal a few more votes from the NDP or the Tories. If it can be done at all, the next leader will have to manage a tricky balancing act to pull it off.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.