POLITICS

Ontario Election Polls In Final Week Of Campaign May Show Debate's Impact

06/07/2014 12:01 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:05 EDT

Could the last week of the Ontario provincial election campaign decide the outcome?

It’s been difficult for polls to gauge the exact nature of the race, but the consensus going into Tuesday’s debate was that the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives were in a tight contest. Both parties had support in the mid-30s and the New Democrats, in the low-20s, were trailing at a distance and have been unable to build any momentum going into the final week.

Polls suggest that PC leader Tim Hudak won the debate, but the margin he enjoyed in the snap post-debate polls was not particularly wide, especially considering that many viewers would have likely awarded victory to the leader they intend to vote for. By that measure, Hudak and NDP leader Andrea Horwath only did marginally better than their party’s polling support suggested they would, while Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne did only marginally worse.

It might follow, then, that for many viewers the debate was a bit of a wash. Pundits, on the other hand, gave it to either Hudak or Horwath by a landslide, with one columnist calling Wynne’s performance an “unmitigated disaster.”

Perception can be almost as important as reality. In a poll conducted after the second Quebec election debate earlier this year, François Legault of the Coalition Avenir Québec was pegged as the winner by people who had not even watched it. The post-debate coverage favoured Legault enough to convince people that he had won, and his party made important gains in the final days.

Could the opposite happen to Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals? We’re only now starting to see polls that incorporate post-debate voting intentions, and the numbers suggest the PCs may be making inroads.

Another factor that could hurt the Liberal campaign is the revelation that the OPP interviewed former premier Dalton McGuinty over the deletion of documents in his office. The headlines, though, were perhaps worse than the reality. McGuinty was only interviewed and apparently “helpful” on a matter that was already known to be under investigation well before the election began. But that bit of a nuance might not filter through, and the opposition parties are already pouncing on the news.

These two events have the potential to dig into the Liberals’ support, and both the NDP and PCs could benefit. Polls over the final days of a campaign tend to converge towards consensus. Whether they will this time — and what that consensus might be — will be an interesting thing to watch as election day approaches.

There is also the question of turnout. In 2011, less than half of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot and that turnout level could be repeated in 2014. In order to account for what could be a gaping difference between the average Ontarian and the average voter, polling firms have attempted to estimate what the support of likely voters will look like on election day. There have been greater discrepancies on this than in the polls of all eligible voters. If that trend holds in the final week, the outcome of the election could be as good as a toss-up.

It could all make for a very heated end to a campaign that had barely reached a low simmer before this past week. Before this week, the election’s result was likely to be a near carbon-copy of the legislature at dissolution. But are enough Ontarians still wavering to change the make-up of Queen’s Park to any significant degree?

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.