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As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province

Doug Ford’s poll lead over his rivals, particularly Andrea Horwath of the New Democratic Party (NDP), has dropped precipitously from a recent average of 13-18% to just 6%. Ford’s candidacy to be Premier of Ontario, Canada’s largest province by population, has generated interest from major media outlets south of the border. The New York Times, Washington Post, and US News and World Report all have recent pieces invariably noting that Doug’s late and infamous brother Rob Ford served as Toronto’s mayor from 2010-2014 and garnered worldwide attention for his use of crack cocaine. Doug Ford’s campaign is attempting to marry the freewheeling, right wing populism of Mayor Ford with the more button down, tightly-message-controlled approach of former Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The popularity of the currently governing Liberal Party, lead by current Premier Kathleen Wynne, is in free fall after four terms in power stretching back to 2003 when Wynne’s predecessor Dalton McGuinty first won a majority. As many as 81% of Ontarians have expressed a desire for change from the current government.

The election period began two weeks ago. Leaders of the three major parties participated in a debate on May 7. The official election writ dropped on May 9. Our strict average of polls in the field since that time puts Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (PCPO) at 34.1%, Horwath’s NDP at 28.2%, and Wynne’s Liberals a distance third at 21.0%. Undecided voters, generally those who say they still don’t know who they will vote for even after a follow-up question asking which way they lean, make up 11.1% of the voting eligible population (the numbers in the chart above do not add up to 100% because EKOS’s lead pollster as of final writing has generously relayed the undecided numbers on Twitter, but has not yet sent the table with figures for parties including undecideds). Those undecided voters are key to all three party leaders’ hopes. Given how undecideds have broken so far in our projection, as well as in detailed undecided data from a panel put together by the polling firm Abacus, it is unclear whether Ford is capable of reaching 38%, generally seen to be the magic number or the minimum necessary to reach majority status in Ontario’s multi-party system.

CounterPunch currently projects that, were the election held today, 55 seats would be Safe, Likely, or Lean Conservative. The NDP would likely secure at least 30 seats by the same measure, while Liberals might have as few as 8 members of provincial parliament, down from 58 after the 2014 election. Another 32 races are toss-ups, with one party or another leading in our projection by 5% or less. Since the legislature is expanding from 107 seats to 124 in this election, 63 seats would be required for any party to obtain a majority and guarantee formation of government. Two other parties, the Green Party and Libertarian Party, are running candidates in every riding. We currently project a very small current advantage for Green Party leader Mike Schreiner in a competitive four-way toss-up race in Guelph.

No Liberal seat in Ontario’s parliament appears Safe according to CounterPunch’s current projection

Ford’s candidacy has generated international interest not only because of his brother’s antics, but also for the way the campaign is being seen as further evidence of the continuing rise in North America of a particularly reactionary form of populist conservatism. Ford’s seasoned campaign team, veterans of Harper’s inner circle, have successfully kept outrageous Ford statements from hitting broadcast waves and newspaper stands.

Mostly.

In the second debate of the campaign, Ford blurted out that he was “going to take care of our own first” when asked about a pilot project to attract new immigrants to Ontario’s sparsely populated but vast Northern region.

While Ford’s party maintains a healthy lead in our seat projection on the basis of “if the election were held tomorrow,” the election is not tomorrow, which is why elections experts who once thought this contest to be in the bag for the Conservative party are now having second thoughts. Beyond not picking up undecided voters in any measurable quantity, Ford appears to be slowly bleeding support among decided voters since the beginning of May. The race, as Abacus Data’s David Coletto put it on Sunday, is now about “Tory structural advantage vs. NDP momentum.”

The Ford campaign is also having to deal with a burgeoning scandal that involves at least 29, and perhaps as many as 40, of the 124 Conservative candidates. Allegations, already largely substantiated in a variety of ways, suggest they paid $20,000 each for a scheme, or a “specific method,” where a twice-convicted fraudster bused international students with fake identification — generated from stolen toll road data —  from nomination meeting to nomination meeting to stuff ballot boxes in their favour. The allegations are being investigated by not just two, but also a third police force (Hamilton), as well as internally by the Conservative party and by the toll operator whose data was stolen. Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner is officially looking into the matter too, with calls by the other two main political parties for the provincial police to get involved. On Sunday, we learned that Ontario’s election watchdog, too, is now investigating, bringing the total number of investigations to at least seven.

As of Monday, May 21 at 3pm, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) popular Ontario Poll Tracker puts Ford’s Progressive Conservative Party’s chances of winning a majority of the provincial parliamentary seats, guaranteeing him the premiership, at 89.9%, with just a 3.8% chance for Horwath’s NDP to secure the most seats and to have first chance to form government. This is up from a paltry 0.3% chance just a week and a half ago. These percentages, as calculated by the CBC’s Éric Grenier, are dramatically too favourable to Ford, making one of the same major mistakes, in excluding or ignoring undecided voters, that saw polling aggregators embarrassed after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the 2017 U.K. general election.

The methodology used here at CounterPunch uses all available polling (unlike RealClearPolitics in the U.S.), without adjustment (unlike Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight), and without excluding undecided voters (unlike topline numbers presented in major media by polling firms and used by nearly all aggregators in the U.K. and Canada). Our published forecasts for November 2016 and June 2017, as well as for the Roy Moore-Doug Jones Senate race in Alabama, were accurate to within one percentage point on the gap and more accurately forecast electoral votes (U.S.) and parliamentary seat numbers (U.K.) than any major aggregator in either country.

While the CBC’s Grenier did not make a seat projection for the U.K. election, his final poll average projected a 6.5% win for Conservatives and was 4.1% off the final 2.4% margin. Our final call, using the same polling data but including undecided voters, was a 2.8% popular vote win for Theresa May’s Conservatives. For the U.S. election, the CBC Presidential Poll Tracker over-projected Clinton’s tally by nearly 100 electoral votes where we had a toss-up, accurately noting that Michigan was at least one place where Clinton’s “blue wall” would fail, potentially handing Donald Trump a victory if he also won the tight race in Florida.

A surge in NDP support is now undeniable as they have closed the gap with Conservatives by 10.6% since mid-April according to the above comparison of numbers from all six polling firms in the field then and now. Horwath, who has been criticized in past campaigns for running too close to the centre, allowing Liberals to cherry-pick her most popular ideas, is running on a more boldly, even if far from perfect, progressive platform that promises pharmacare and dental care coverage by the government for all Ontarians, a reversal of Liberal privatization of the provincial power supply, a conversion of student loans to grants, and payment for those changes by raising taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations. The most determinative factors in her rise, however, appear to be a combination of her very high favourability numbers in a third election season where she is seen as a steady presence, the wide desire for change from Liberal governance under Wynne, and strong feelings from centre to left that Ford should be stopped if at all possible.

Pollsters note that undecided Canadians often make up their mind about who to vote for when they get together with relatives over statutory holiday weekends. An extended Victoria Day weekend has just passed in Ontario. We’ll continue to follow developments, with an updating full projection that includes ranked seat-by-seat win possibility projections for each party, through to election day.

Where U.S. Presidential elections have become the equivalent of a double marathon, Ontario’s elections are more like a 200 meter sprint. Having started a fortnight ago, they will end in just over two weeks on Thursday, June 7. Doug Ford began the short race with a 75 meter lead, but as the contest nears the halfway point, his campaign is huffing and puffing for air while wondering why the finish line still seems so very far away.

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