With polls suggesting the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives are running neck-and-neck ahead of Thursday's Ontario election, expect the attention of politics watchers — and possibly a few campaign buses — to turn in the direction of Kitchener Centre this week.
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- Riding profile: Kitchener-Centre
Why Kitchener Centre? Because voters there are so good at backing the winning party, the riding now has an established track record and a reputation as a key Ontario bellwether riding.
Wilfrid Laurier University political science professor Barry Kay told CBC News that Kitchener Centre and its predecessor riding (Kitchener) have supported the winning party province-wide in every federal and provincial election for the last 30 years.
"This is clearly a swing area," said Kay. "The leaders are in here a lot."
Ontario's 'Goldilocks' riding
Kay describes Kitchener Centre as a "Goldilocks riding."
"It's not too big a city and it's not too small town," Kay told CBC's Amanda Margison. "It's kind of a middle point for the province."
Kay said the riding represents an even mix of urban and rural, with a demographic blend of voters working in technology, manufacturing and non-manufacturing jobs that often adds up to an accurate cross-section of voter intention across the entire province.
Kitchener Centre PC candidate Wayne Wettlaufer knows all about how swings in his riding can translate across the province. He represented the riding from 1995 to 2003, losing the seat when then premier Ernie Eves was trounced by Dalton McGuinty's Liberals.
Liberal John Milloy squeezed out a win in 2011, a result that extended Kitchener's streak of picking province-wide winners.
Milloy's victory came by the slimmest of margins, as he finished just 300 votes ahead of PC candidate Dave MacDonald. And again, the local vote reflected what happened province-wide: Milloy's win came as part of a Liberal victory, but one that resulted in a minority government.
That government came to an abrupt end last month when the NDP Leader Andrea Horwath indicated she would not support the Liberal budget.
Kitchener Centre 'emblematic of the whole province'
"If you look at Kitchener Centre in every way, shape and form, it's emblematic of the whole province," said Wettlaufer, who hopes party leader Tim Hudak's job plan resonates with voters.
What is a 'bellwether'?
A bellwether riding is one that is seen as indicating an overall trend in an election.
And while you might think the term comes from some derivation of a weather vane or the word "whether," it actually has an old and more pastoral origin.
The word derives from the Middle English bellewether, for the castrated ram (a wether) that leads a flock of sheep while wearing a bell around its neck, to give shepherds an indication of where the flock was headed even if it couldn't be seen.
Milloy indicated he would not run again so this time around it's Daiene Vernile, a TV journalist, carrying the Liberal flag.
"We have manufacturing, we have high-tech, so this is like a microcosm of what you might see across the province," she said of the riding.
Vernile said last week's leaders debate failed to deliver a clear winner, meaning the race in Kitchener Centre could be tight again. Results there could also again reflect how voters are feeling across the province.
"Voters told me they weren’t getting any answers, there was no clarity for them," she said. "We are full-tilt now to the end of the election," she told CBC News.
Although the riding is again shaping up as a race between the Liberals and PCs, NDP candidate Margaret Johnston said her party's message is getting through.
"These are hard-working people," the former school board trustee told CBC News. "They care about their community. They want to tell us when we're doing things well, but they also tell us when we're not."
Johnston also said she wouldn't be surprised to see the riding buck the bellwether trend this time around.
For inspiration, Johnston looks next door to the Kitchener-Waterloo riding. There, NDPer Catherine Fife won a byelection in September 2012, holding off a challenge from the PCs. The byelection was called when McGuinty appointed Tory stalwart Elizabeth Witmer to head the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
"She's doing a great job," said Johnston of Fife. "And if Kitchener–Waterloo votes NDP, then Kitchener Centre can as well."