As byelections go, few have been as dramatic as the one coming to a close on Thursday in the Ontario provincial riding of Sudbury.
The polls seem to suggest that Glenn Thibeault, the ex-NDP MP running for the Ontario Liberals, is the favourite to win. But it is far from a sure bet.
The riding was narrowly won by Joe Cimino of the New Democrats in last year's provincial election, with Liberal candidate Andrew Olivier coming up short. But with Cimino's resignation only a few months after the vote, the riding is again up for grabs.
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Thibeault, formerly the NDP MP for the federal riding of Sudbury, was named the Liberal candidate in place of Olivier, who has opted to run as an independent. Accusations of bribery have further coloured what would have already been an interesting byelection.
Despite the controversies, two polls suggest that Thibeault is in position to pull the gambit off.
Oraclepoll Research, a local polling firm, has found support to be holding steady throughout the campaign. The latest survey, conducted Jan. 28-31 for CTV, put Thibeault ahead of the NDP's Suzanne Shawbonquit with 41 per cent to 26 per cent support. Olivier placed third with 19 per cent. The numbers are all almost identical to what Oraclepoll found in two earlier surveys.
But another poll, conducted by Mainstreet Technologies on Feb. 2 and published by the Sudbury Star, put Thibeault ahead of Shawbonquit 37 per cent to 32 per cent, with 16 per cent support for Olivier, similar to a poll conducted by the company in December. The closer race also echoes polling done by Forum Research.
Both companies put Progressive Conservative candidate Paula Peroni well behind with 10 or 11 per cent support.
The results of the Oraclepoll and Mainstreet polls are within each other's margins of error. This complicates the picture considerably. Is Thibeault on track for a comfortable victory, or will it be a much closer contest?
Duelling candidates, methodologies
While the race is tight between Thibeault, Shawbonquit and Olivier, two polling methodologies are also facing off in the byelection.
Oraclepoll has conducted all of its surveys via telephone with live operators, whereas both Mainstreet and Forum have been using interactive voice response (IVR) for their polls.
On the face of it, Oraclepoll would seem to have the advantage. The firm is local to Sudbury, and it has been carrying out its polling over three or four days. This allows it to do callbacks, in which a polling firm attempts to reach people who did not pick up the phone when first contacted. The value of a local area code showing up on caller ID, as opposed to the Toronto-based Mainstreet and Forum, may not be insignificant in terms of response rates as well.
On the other hand, IVR technology makes it easier to amass larger samples. The sample in Mainstreet's latest poll was 882, compared to 400 for Oraclepoll. Forum's samples have also been larger, which reduces the margin of error. However, the consistency in Oraclepoll's findings suggests that sample size has not been much of an issue.
In the end, we won't know which methodology will produce the better results until Thursday night.
Battleground Northern Ontario?
Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair raised the stakes for his party when he visited Sudbury to lend a hand to the local campaign. The defection of Thibeault also increases the importance of the provincial byelection for federal bragging rights. And Northern Ontario is certainly being targeted by all three federal parties.
The NDP won the region in the 2011 federal election with more than 40 per cent of the vote and six of the region's 10 seats. The party may have more difficulty holding on in 2015.
Some seats are in little danger of being lost by the NDP, such as Nickel Belt or Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing.
But three ridings in particular are looking like interesting NDP-Liberal contests this year, starting of course with the federal riding of Sudbury itself. The two Thunder Bay ridings could also be at play for the Liberals, with the dynamics of Thunder Bay-Superior North complicated by the incumbency of Bruce Hyer, a former NDP MP now sitting as a Green Party member.
The New Democrats won't be entirely on the defensive, however, with the party apparently trying to entice former Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton to run for the party in the Conservative-held riding of Kenora. The Tories should also face a tough challenge from the Liberals in the riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming, won by just a handful of votes in 2011.
For now, the first act of 2015's political drama in Northern Ontario will play out in Sudbury on Thursday. The outcome could set the tone for the rest of the year.
The poll by Oraclepoll Research was conducted between January 28 and 31 for CTV, interviewing 400 Sudburians by telephone. The margin of error associated with the poll is +/- 4.9%, 19 times out of 20. The question asked related to voting intentions was as follows: "A byelection for the provincial riding of Sudbury has been called for Feb. 5, 2015. If the election was held today, which of the following would you most likely support or be leaning towards at this time?"
The poll by Mainstreet Technologies was conducted on Feb. 2 for the Sudbury Star, interviewing 882 Sudburians via interactive voice response. The margin of error associated with the poll is +/- 3.4%, 19 times out of 20. The wording of the question was not included in Mainstreet's release.