09/30/2011 12:32 EDT | Updated 11/30/2011 05:12 EST

Ontario Election: Poll Puts Liberals, Tories In Dead Heat, But Shows Hunger For Change


TORONTO - Respondents in a new opinion poll on the Ontario election are split in who they are backing, but a majority say they are hungry for change.

The online poll, conducted by Environics Research Group and provided exclusively to The Canadian Press, found that 63 per cent of respondents think it's time for a new government, while 37 per cent say the incumbent Liberals deserve to be re-elected Oct. 6.

"You have a lot of people who are just angry with the government, and they're trying to decide which opposition party to go to," Derek Leebosh, Environics' vice-president of public affairs, said Friday.

Respondents were asked "Which statement best reflects your opinion?" The first choice was "The Ontario Liberals have been in power too long. It's time for a change." The second option was "(Premier) Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals have done a good job and deserve to be re-elected."

Thirty-six per cent of the respondents surveyed said they'd back the Progressive Conservatives, 35 per cent said they'd support the Liberals and 25 per cent said they'd back the New Democrats.

About three per cent said they'd support the Greens or another party. The results include decided voters and those who are undecided but are leaning towards a certain party.

But it's a different situation than the May 2 federal election, where the Tories were able to benefit from vote-splitting between the Liberals and New Democrats in some Ontario ridings, Leebosh said.

The level of Tory support provincially is much lower than it was federally, he said. And in areas where there appears to be a close two-way race between the New Democrats and Conservatives, the support for the NDP is very low.

"You could make the argument that the NDP might be splitting the centre-left vote with the Liberals, (but) they're also splitting the anti-government vote with the Conservatives," he said of the provincial race.

"So the splits kind of go both ways."

Leebosh said the results are consistent with other opinion polls that suggest it's "extremely likely" that Ontario will end up with a minority government for the first time in 16 years.

If that happens, the NDP would likely hold the balance of power. But leader Andrea Horwath remained tightlipped Friday on which party she'd support.

"It's clear that people are not happy with the status quo that's left them behind, they're not happy with the kind of government that's taking them for granted," she said.

"If they choose to have a minority government in the province of Ontario, it then becomes the responsibility of all of us who are elected to make it work for the people."

With less than a week to go until voting day, McGuinty will likely ramp up his efforts to convince voters that Ontario needs another majority Liberal government to steer it through the rough economic waters ahead.

"Take a look at our record in terms of how we managed the economy over the course of the recession, we stuck together, found a way to support each other," the Liberal leader said Friday.

"What I'm saying to the people of Ontario is there's only one party that's going to keep us on track, who's going to maintain that sense of stability, that sense of progress."

But the federal Tories are also wading into the provincial race, with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty throwing his support behind PC Leader Tim Hudak.

Friday's high-profile endorsement may be a sign that the Harper Conservatives — who've remained aloof until now — are concerned about Hudak's campaign, said Robert Drummond, a politics professor at Toronto's York University.

"Maybe it does mean that they're either fearful that Hudak is losing support from a month-and-a-half ago, or they feel like he has a chance to pick up some support if he's seen to have the support of the federal party," he said.

Toronto's conservative Mayor Rob Ford, whose support seems to be slipping amid proposed cuts to city services, has remained silent on who he'd back in the race.

It appears the Liberals have a big lead in vote-rich Toronto, with the New Democrats in the No. 2 spot, Leebosh said. In the suburbs around the city — the so-called "905" area — the Liberals and Tories are in a dead heat.

But Hudak says the Toronto numbers will change on Thursday night.

"I'm confident we're going to win seats here in Toronto come election day because families want relief they want jobs and they want an end to the kind of waste and secret deals we're seeing with Dalton McGuinty," he said.

The NDP appear to be pulling ahead in the north, while the Tories seem to be "cleaning up" in rural areas, as well as eastern and central Ontario, Leebosh said.

Unlike a traditional telephone poll, in which respondents are randomly selected, the Environics survey was conducted online.

It surveyed 1,000 respondents between Sept. 26 to 28. The bulk of the responses came before the Sept. 27 televised leaders debate, so the results may not reflect the full impact of any post-debate upswing for a particular party, Leebosh noted.

"Given that there's been a lot of talk that (NDP Leader) Andrea Horwath exceeded expectations in the debate, that the NDP could have a lot of upward mobility yet," he said.

More respondents in the poll disapproved than approved of both McGuinty and Hudak. Forty-nine per cent disapproved of McGuinty compared to 41 per cent who approved, while 41 per cent disapproved of Hudak compared to 36 per cent who approved.

Only Horwath's approval rating was in positive territory, with 42 per cent saying they approved the NDP leader compared to 23 per cent who disapproved.

The respondents were chosen from a larger pool of people who were recruited and compensated for participating.

The non-random nature of online polling makes it impossible to determine the statistical accuracy of how the poll reflects the opinions of the general population.