09/21/2011 07:57 EDT | Updated 11/21/2011 05:12 EST

Can Liberals Recover From Carbon Tax Flub?

Jason Lietaer (PC): Now, the issue of the day: taxes. A Liberal backbencher says a carbon tax is on the table. Liberals go into damage control, saying he misspoke. The problem: it was delivered in a web chat. He typed it. Twice.


With the kick-off to Ontario's 40th general election on Oct. 6, The Huffington Post Canada kicks off its coverage with lively, ongoing debates between three of the smartest and most plugged-in politicos in the province: John Duffy arguing for the McGuinty camp; Jason Lietaer (@jasonlietaer) in Hudak's corner; and Heather Fraser (@ottawafraser) duking it out for Horwath. Check in with every weekday for the freshest and best election coverage on the web.

John Duffy (Liberal):

Advance polls are open today, so it's a good moment to talk about the ground game.

By all accounts, we appear to be in a fairly low-engagement environment so far in the Ontario provincial election. Since the week one direct engagement between Liberals and PCs over the new workforce entrant tax support, there has been no compelling conflict between the parties to spark intensive voter interest. Instead, we're seeing the same pattern this week as last week: the two sides prosecute their campaigns on largely separate patches of ground. As well, There doesn't seem to be a killer TV ad that is driving big numbers out there. With the televised leaders' debate now a little less than a week away, the possibility exists that no major events will occur before that encounter. And if all sides are content to take the same strategic approach to the debate, not much will happen next Tuesday, either.

So what's going on? A lot, actually. The key principle in the campaign this week appears to be geography: the campaigns seem to be focusing on specific ridings and regions, in part aiming their messages to suit specific area needs. The PCs and NDP appear to be putting a fair bit of time into northern Ontario ridings, competing with each other for votes in a way that we've talked about before. The Liberals are working several zones, including today in Belleville and earlier this week in hard-hit southwestern Ontario. Messrs. McGuinty and Hudak are also looping back frequently into the swing ridings of the 905 area around Toronto.

This process of the campaign focusing more and more on smaller patches of intellectual space culminates, ultimately, in the riding-by-riding battles of Election Day. Over the past several federal elections, that E-Day dynamic has shown up earlier in the campaign as advance poll voting has grown. Think of the advance poll as a trial of on-the-ground organizational strength. It's been a crucial prefigurement of Conservative E-Day successes federally. It will be interesting to examine advance poll turnout from a number of perspectives, including the light it sheds on who has the organizational edge, which makes such a difference in a close-fought campaign set against a low-engagement environment.

Jason Lietaer (PC):

John is right -- the federal Conservative wins in the last three elections was based at least partly on organization and ground game. Each time Stephen Harper was elected, the Tory vote was several points higher than predicted in polls leading up to E-Day.

The question that many ask themselves is "why?" Without talking trade secrets, the answer is generally simple: motivating people. It's one of the weaknesses of the Liberal vote traditionally -- their vote is less "hard" and doesn't always bring people out to the polls. Can they fix. that? Of course. But it requires purpose.

I like John's measure of on-the-ground organization. I believe he is right, that advance poll strength is a good strong indicator of electoral success. Advance polls are being increasingly used by "partisans" and "non-partisans" alike but there is one common denominator: if you deliver the votes in advance polls, you can focus your resources on different voters on election day.

It is also true that sometimes organization can be overrated. It's happened recently: think the NDP in Quebec. But that's the exception, not the rule. If the NDP wants to make serious inroads, they're going to have to get on a roll and win in places they have little to no organization.

Now, the issue of the day: taxes. What a fascinating day. A Liberal backbencher says a carbon tax is on the table. Liberals go into damage control, saying he misspoke. The problem: it was delivered in a web chat. He typed it. Twice.

He's not the only one. The list of Liberals who have supported the carbon tax is as long as your arm. It includes the premier himself. They like to argue, but it's true.

I also see Dalton McGuinty has wrote a letter saying he won't raise taxes but he keeps avoiding saying the words. What is he so scared of? And speaking of Dalton McGuinty's fears, I'm really looking forward to the northern debate tomorrow. Should be a blast. I'm packing a coat for the trip to Thunder Bay.

John, one last chance to accept. We will pay for the videoconference for Mr McGuinty to join from Toronto. Be a sport.

Heather Fraser (NDP):

Most of my days working for the NDP have been working on the "ground game" so today's topic really rings my bells. Just a quick shout out to all those folks who volunteer to staff the phones and knock on doors for all the political parties. They do an incredible service to their parties and to the democratic process. They are the ones talking face-to-face with voters and are often first detect what's happening in the campaign -- even before our beloved pollsters and strategists.

The ground game matters and New Democrats are strong on ground game tactics. We are seeing evidence of a strong ground game in northern Ontario and in every region of the province from the 905 (Bramalea Gore Malton) to 613 (Ottawa Centre), downtown Toronto (Davenport) and more. The NDP is clearly engaged in a growth campaign and the provincial polling numbers prove that point.

To address Jason's point about the NDP gains in Quebec -- that breakthrough had its roots in a great deal of building in the years leading up to the 2011 campaign, even before the by-election win in Outremont. But it was also a result of Layton's positive message for change. He gave voters a real choice. They rejected the traditional parties' approach to politics and chose something new. The ground game pays off best when the message resonates.

At its heart a good ground game means talking to Ontarians where they live. That's why we are holding a debate in the north. Newsflash: the north doesn't want edicts like the Far North Act handed out from Toronto, they want to be consulted. It's too bad that McGuinty isn't interested in talking about the issues that face northern Ontarians. Since before the writ we have actually been calling for a total of three debates. If McGuinty wants to take up his ground game, we'll debate any place any time.

John Duffy, political strategist for the Ontario Liberal election campaign, is also the founder of StrategyCorp and author of author of 'Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada.' Jason Lietaer, the Hudak campaign's communications director, is also the vice president of public affairs of Enterprise Canada. Heather Fraser, representing the NDP, is the director of communications for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.