05/24/2014 10:42 EDT | Updated 05/24/2014 10:59 EDT

Ontario Election 2014: Why Hudak May Have Played His Hand Too Early


As the incumbent government, Kathleen Wynne's Liberals have an intrinsic advantage in the ongoing provincial election campaign in Ontario that both Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath hope to wrestle away.

Will either of them be successful?

Hudak's Progressive Conservatives have managed to set the agenda for the campaign, coming out early with the party platform and policy planks at its core.

Focus since the start of the race has primarily been on Hudak's Million Jobs Plan, and the promise to reduce the public sector by 100,000 positions. His pledge to shrink the size of government is a stark contrast to the less ambitious platform Hudak unsuccessfully presented to Ontarians in 2011.

But this is a long campaign, and Hudak may have played his hand too early. He is already moving to more familiar territory with his attacks on the Liberals concerning the gas plant scandal. It is unlikely that this new tack is going to work.

The story of the gas plants has been in the news for a very long time now, and has not managed to whittle away Liberal support to any great extent. Though the polls are in disagreement, for the most part it seems the Liberals are generally where they were on election night in 2011, before the scandal emerged.

Wynne's Liberals are also polling significantly higher than the party was at the time of Dalton McGuinty's resignation.

Pinning the scandal to Wynne's government may not pay the dividends Hudak is hoping it will. A poll by Abacus Data this past week showed that 18 per cent of Ontarians considered Wynne the person "more honest than most politicians," compared to just nine per cent who said the same for Hudak. If the election is based on trust, Hudak may not win.

If it is a popularity contest, Hudak's chances are even worse. His approval and favourability ratings continue to register far below those of Wynne and Horwath. Even in polls where the PCs hold an overall lead, Hudak can only tie Wynne on who would make the best premier. Otherwise, the Liberal leader beats him by a large margin.

However, every poll that makes the distinction between all eligible and likely voters also show the PCs have a big advantage when it comes to turnout. Unless Liberal supporters can be galvanized to cast a ballot, the Tories will prevail.

The New Democrats are trying to get at the Liberal vote from the other direction, but the platform released this week was hardly the sort of bold move that can transform the race.

The NDP is at risk of making the same mistake that doomed Hudak in 2011. They have not set out to contrast themselves to the Liberals to any great extent, hoping instead to benefit from being a party that is not the Liberals. That strategy failed for the Tories in 2011, and could fail for the NDP in 2014.

The NDP campaign itself appears to be somewhat rudderless, with Horwath explaining her decision not to support the Liberal budget primarily because of trust, rather than anything specific about the spending plan itself. Only 13 per cent of Ontarians told Abacus Data they felt Horwath had the clearest vision for Ontario, compared to 18 per cent apiece for Wynne and Hudak.

New Democrats do have the potential for growth, however. The largest group of swing voters in the province are those who will either vote NDP or Liberal. But the bad news is that, at this stage, these swing voters are leaning towards the incumbent.

According to Abacus Data, these voters are also more focused on the issue of jobs and the economy than they are honesty and accountability, which is more of a priority for PC voters. That does not bode well for the NDP if they are merely hoping to gain from disillusionment with the Liberals as, on the economy, Wynne polls ahead of Horwath among OLP/NDP swing voters. Wynne is well ahead on who would make the best premier among this group.

That leaves the Liberals in a strong position, at least on their left flank. The Tories continue to have the largest bank of committed voters, and their supporters are more likely to bother voting on election day.

The race remains a close one and the PCs are still capable of winning, but so far the Liberals appear to be holding their own.

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.

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