10/06/2011 09:08 EDT | Updated 12/06/2011 05:12 EST

Polls open as millions passing judgment on McGuinty Liberals in Ontario election

TORONTO - A lacklustre Conservative campaign helped Dalton McGuinty become Ontario's first three-term Liberal premier in more than a century Thursday, but his record of broken promises and higher taxes made the win anything but decisive.

McGuinty overcame palpable voter anger to eke out a third win but lost seats and popular support in the process.

Despite being almost tied in voter support, McGuinty's Liberals managed to outpace the Tories under Tim Hudak where it mattered — in seat count.

"This boils down to the Liberals are better campaigners than they are government," said Laure Paquette, a political science professor at Lakehead University.

"They had a damn good campaign strategy and they were very disciplined about it."

Nevertheless, the showing was not strong enough to push the Liberals firmly into majority territory, suggesting a period of political uncertainty for the province.

The New Democrats improved significantly under rookie leader Andrea Horwath, but were unable to ride the orange wave stirred by late federal NDP leader Jack Layton to the heights many pundits had predicted.

Both the Tories and NDP picked up seats at Liberal expense.

In 2007, the Liberals picked up 42.3 per cent of the popular vote, the Tories 31.6 per cent and the New Democrats 16.8 per cent.

Preliminary results suggested the Liberals with about 37 per cent of the popular vote led the Tories slightly. The NDP was at 23 per cent.

Analysts had said Horwath could hold the balance of power if McGuinty failed to win a clear majority of at least 54 seats.

At dissolution, the Liberals held 70 seats, the Tories 25, and the New Democrats 10. Two seats were vacant.

The leader of the Greens, Mike Schreiner, became the first prominent election casualty when he lost his bid for the party's first provincial seat.

The party also plunged in popular support, garnering only about three per cent of the vote, down from eight per cent four years ago.

"Building a new political movement takes time and the Green party is here to stay," Schreiner said in a statement.

McGuinty, Hudak and Horwath easily won their ridings.

Elections Ontario reported an almost flawless day.

The month-long campaign was marked by seismic shifts in public opinion that began with Hudak as the clear front-runner and McGuinty fighting an angry backlash over broken promises, higher taxes, and two-term voter fatigue.

By voting day, however, most polls and analysts were predicting that Hudak had fallen short in his efforts to pry McGuinty from office.

"Tim Hudak blew it," said Larry Savage of Brock University's political science department.

Observers did expect Horwath, who began the campaign all but unknown to voters, to lift her party from the doldrums to which it had been consigned after Bob Rae's unpopular tenure as NDP premier from 1990 to 1995.

In all, about 8.5 million people were eligible to cast ballots at a time when chilly economic winds have been buffeting the province.

McGuinty pressed his competence and experience as a fiscal manager.

"We've got a solid record (and) we've run a solid campaign," he said as he voted Thursday.

His message appeared to have resonated with voters despite their anger that should have washed Hudak into the premier's chair.

"We all kind of concluded it was a done deal," said Bryan Evans, a political science professor at Ryerson University.

"The Conservative campaign simply read it wrong and made too many strategic blunders along the way."

Analysts point to Hudak's constant banging of the anti-McGuinty drum rather than offering people a clear reason to vote for him instead.

He also insisted on pushing wedge issues that sparked a backlash and distracted from any positive message he tried to get out, observers say.

"People don't trust the Tories to be tolerant," said Paquette.

The latest polls suggested Horwath would likely lead her New Democrats to levels of popularity unseen since Rae's term in the 1990s.

Analysts credit Horwath's feisty style along with an updraft from Layton for making a positive impact on voters.

Turnout in the 2007 election plunged to a historic low of 52.1 per cent.