Toronto·Analysis

Vote Compass: Horwath taps those weary of Wynne, fearful of Ford

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath appears to be benefitting from a combination of low support for Kathleen Wynne and trepidation by many voters to back a Doug Ford-led PC party.

NDP appears to be drawing support away from the Liberal base

Results from Vote Compass data suggest that Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has so far managed to bleed support away from the Liberal base. (Andrew Ryan/Canadian Press)

Based on the more than 220,000 responses to date to the Ontario election edition of Vote Compass, it would appear that Ontarians are playing a coordination game, and the New Democrats are reaping the benefit.

The anyone-but-Ford vote appears to be coalescing around Andrea Horwath, with the NDP surpassing the Ontario PC Party in recent polls. Data from Vote Compass show trends similar to the polls, with vote share for the NDP inching ahead of the PC Party in the last week (see Figure 1 below). Given the volatility of the vote, it's still Doug Ford's race to lose, but that impression may be the very reason why so many Ontarians are pooling their bets on the NDP.

Figure 1: Daily vote intention trends

(Vox Pop Labs)

Based on Vote Compass data collected since the launch of the campaign, the NDP appears to be drawing support largely from the Liberal base. Of those who voted for the Ontario Liberal Party in the 2014 Ontario provincial election, only 36 per cent indicated that they will vote for the same party again in 2018. Thirty-one per cent have said they will vote NDP, 11 per cent will vote PC, and 20 per cent remain undecided (see Figure 2). The NDP and PCs, by contrast, retain most of their 2014 voters, with 66 per cent of those who voted NDP in 2014 indicating that they will vote for the NDP again in 2018. Perhaps even more striking, 79 per cent of PC voters in 2014 will pledge their support for the PC Party again in 2018.

Figure 2: Vote shifts between the 2014 and 2018 Ontario elections

(Source: Vox Pop Labs)

There is little if any evidence within the data to suggest that the NDP's rise is a result of some newfound affinity for its leader or its policies among the average Ontario voter. Although Liberal voters generally view Ms. Horwath in a somewhat better light than NDP voters do Kathleen Wynne, there has been no significant change in Ontarians' evaluations of the party leaders over the course of the campaign. Unlike in the last federal election, where perceptions of Justin Trudeau's competence saw a boost midway through the campaign — at about the same time as the Liberals started gaining ground — there has been no discernible change throughout the campaign in attitudes towards Ms. Horwath's leadership that might explain her party's ascent in the polls (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Party leader evaluations over time

(Source: Vox Pop Labs)

It would appear, rather, that the main reason for the improving prospects of the NDP is most likely Mr. Ford himself. The prospect of a Ford-led government has seemingly prompted many Ontarians to vote strategically, with former Liberal voters counting on the NDP as the better bet to defeat the PCs given widespread indignation towards the incumbent Liberals.

The less obvious driver of the NDP's surge in the polls may be the polls themselves. The polls have not only chronicled Ms. Horwath's ascendance, but arguably contributed to it by providing Ontarians with some direction as to how to cast their vote strategically if they are seeking to block Mr. Ford from becoming premier. Data collected from Vote Compass during the 2011 Canadian federal election, in which the phenomenon known as the "Orange Crush" saw the NDP make unprecedented electoral gains in Quebec, shows that support for the NDP in Quebec was magnified by polls indicating modest increases in support for the NDP (see Figure 4). Ontarians may be taking similar cues from polling results indicating that the NDP is the party to back for those who want to block a PC victory.

Figure 4: Effect of polling on support for the NDP in Quebec during the 2011 Canadian federal election

(Source: Vox Pop Labs)

Despite having propelled their federal counterparts to victory in 2015, the Ontario Liberal Party's continued encroachment into the ideological terrain of the NDP may have contributed to their undoing. The positioning of the Liberals relative to the NDP in the Vote Compass Ontario results (see Figure 5) demonstrates how close the two parties are in terms of their respective policy platforms. While partisans would be quite right to argue that there are substantive differences in the policy platforms of the two parties, they are viewed by the public as a narcissism of minor differences relative to Mr. Ford's PC Party. This reduces the perceived cost for Liberal voters who are considering voting for the NDP.

Figure 5: Vote Compass map of the 2018 Ontario political landscape

(Source: Vox Pop Labs)

In fact, we see in Figure 6 that Liberal voters are more likely to identify with the NDP than any party other than the Liberal Party itself. And the degree to which Liberal voters identify with the NDP is higher than that to which NDP voters identify as Liberal. This makes it relatively easy for Liberal voters to lend their vote to the NDP, particularly when the alternative is one to which many Liberal voters are much more averse. As demonstrated in Figure 6, Liberal voters identify least with the PC Party — less so, in fact, than voters for any other party. 

Figure 6: Degree to which voters identify with each the parties

(Vox Pop Labs)

The public trepidation among some Ontarians over the prospect of Mr. Ford as premier coupled with a clear desire among others to rebuke the incumbent Liberals has given the NDP an opportunity to seize the vote heading into the final week of the election campaign. Early gains in the polls by the NDP have consolidated their position as challenger to Mr. Ford as frontrunner.

Being thrust into the spotlight, however, also puts Ms. Horwath in a tenuous position not entirely unlike that which her federal counterpart, Thomas Mulcair, faced in the last Canadian federal election. In order to maintain her current trajectory, Ms. Horwath must court a swath of the electorate who are not naturally inclined to support her policies or her party, but see her as sufficiently aligned with their politics such that they are willing to lend her their vote in order to avoid a less desirable outcome.

To maintain this advantage under the heightened scrutiny that comes with increased potential for victory, the NDP will have to maintain a delicate coalition between its base and the strategic voters that will see it over the line. Mr. Mulcair saw a similar coalition collapse in 2015 when he took a hard line on not running budget deficits, only to be outflanked on the left by Mr. Trudeau. Despite a similar appeal to voters on the left from the Ontario Liberals, Ms. Horwath does not appear to be at risk of being outflanked in the same way as her federal counterpart. However, categorical positions that expose the ideological fault lines between the NDP and Liberals still pose a risk to Ms. Horwath. This is no doubt why Ms. Wynne opted to focus on the Ms. Horwath's refusal to enact back-to-work legislation for striking public sector workers during the debates — the NDP position is likely to give pause to some of the traditionally Liberal base that is currently propping up the NDP.

If Ms. Horwath is able to secure enough of a lead to form government come June 7, she will have done so with the support of many Ontarians who were motivated more by a desire to block Mr. Ford from assuming the mantle of Premier than by the prospect of an NDP government.


The findings reported are based on 198,466 respondents who participated in Vote Compass from May 8 to May 28, 2018. The data are a non-probability sample and have been weighted in order to approximate the distribution of opinion within the population of Ontario. The data have been weighted by gender, age, education, geography, and country of birth to ensure the sample's composition reflects that of the actual population of Ontario according to census data and other population estimates. Vote Compass is an initiative of Vox Pop Labs.

Click here to find the detailed methodology.

About the Author

Clifton van der Linden is the founder and CEO of Vox Pop Labs, the makers of Vote Compass. He is also a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

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