6 factors that will decide the Ontario election

Though it seems like the parties have been campaigning for weeks, the Ontario election race is really kicking off tonight with the first televised leaders' debate. The official start of the campaign period is Wednesday and election day is June 7.

Televised leaders' debate tonight between Wynne, Ford and Horwath could set the tone for the campaign

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and PC Leader Doug Ford will hold their first televised debate tonight. (Chris Young/Canadian Press, Michael Charles Cole/CBC and Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Though it seems like the parties have been campaigning for weeks, the Ontario election race is really kicking off now. 

On Monday, the first televised debate will take place between Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne, PC Leader Doug Ford and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. The official start of the campaign period is Wednesday, and election day is June 7, one month from now. 

The debate will be broadcast  at 6 p.m. ET on CityNews and can also be viewed on its Youtube channel or Facebook page. 

That makes this a good time to look at the key factors that will determine who wins come election day on June 7.

The campaign 

While polling suggests Ford's PCs are heading into the campaign with a sizable lead, it's important to know the pollsters are calculating their numbers not only from committed voters but also those who are merely leaning toward a party. Polling suggests nearly half of Ontario voters haven't fully made up their minds, and that makes them persuadable over the next month.

"While it may seem that this election is a foregone conclusion, if you look below the numbers, that tells me there's a lot of opportunity for change and for the campaign to have an impact," said David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, a polling firm. 

Ontario PC Leader Doug Ford is leading in the polls, but more people view him negatively than positively. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

"It'd be a mistake to say this one is over," said Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates, another polling firm. "The campaign will matter. The policies and platforms do matter and the communication of those do matter."

He points out that in the past few Ontario elections and the 2015 federal election, the polls showed "all kinds of movement (during the campaigns) that produced a profoundly different result from what we saw in the going-in polling."

Time for a change

Of course, after nearly 15 years in power, the Liberals could run the best campaign in the history of Ontario politics and still fail to overcome the mood for a change in government. 

"There is an intense desire for change," said Coletto. "A significant portion of the electorate has completely written off voting for Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals."

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne carries the burden of an approval rating that polls suggest is around 25 per cent. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

While Ford appears to be capturing the bulk of those change voters now, this is where the pollsters see a potential path to victory for the NDP and Horwath. 

"The way the dynamic has been set up as a Liberal-Tory fight, she's been off to the side," said Jaime Watt, executive chairman of Navigator, a strategic communications firm in Toronto. He said Horwath needs to attract those voters who are tired of Wynne but not sure about Ford. 

However, Watt struggles to see how the election can turn against the PCs. "The polls at the moment make it pretty clear that Mr. Ford will lead a majority government on the 8th of June." 

The party leaders

Coming at the start of the campaign, tonight's televised debate gives each party leader the opportunity to grab some momentum and make an impression on voters, most of whom don't pay close attention to provincial politics outside of election time.

Polling shows the leaders of all three official parties have their problems. Wynne is saddled with an abysmal approval rating, constantly below 25 per cent for the past two years. More people view Ford negatively than view him positively. And despite nine years as leader, Horwath still struggles to get noticed, with one-third of voters polled saying they don't know enough about her to form an opinion.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath still struggles to be noticed, but if younger voters turn out it could be a boost to her party. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The grind of the campaign will demand a lot from the leaders. They will face constant scrutiny and a single mistake can swing public opinion dramatically. The leader with the most at risk in tonight's debate is Ford, as the front-runner.

"Ford will have to demonstrate he is ready to govern and up for the job of being premier," said Watt.

He said Wynne must be scrappy and tough on Ford in the debate, but it is not clear that Ford should go on the offensive against Wynne. "If he attacks her, a woman, premier, grandma, he could find himself in a big bunch of trouble." 

The 905

It's simply not feasible for any party to win this election without winning a majority of the seats in the suburban belt around Toronto. That has long been the case in provincial politics, but it is even more profound in 2018, because the new electoral map adds seven extra seats to the 905. 

The key to the Wynne Liberals' boost from a minority to a majority in 2014 was flipping such PC-held ridings in the 905 as Burlington, Durham and Newmarket-Aurora. The PCs will have to take those back and plenty of others to win on June 7. In particular, look for them to target seat-rich Mississauga and Brampton, just as Stephen Harper's Conservative Party did to win its federal majority in 2011.

There will be seven seats up for grabs in Mississauga. New ridings have been added across the 905 since the last election. (CBC)

"The 905 right now, it's a real challenge for the Liberals," said Coletto. "It always historically has been a tough place for the New Democrats to win votes." 

On election night, look to see which party is winning the most seats in the 905, and you'll almost certainly see the party that forms the government. 

Pocketbook issues

Affordability struggles are on the minds of many Ontario voters, pretty much across the income spectrum. Even middle-class voters feel weighed down particularly by the high costs of housing, but also the cost of transportation, car insurance, hydro, daycare and of course taxation. 

While the provincial economy is humming along, real incomes have not kept up with the cost of living. It's contributing to a deeply felt sense of frustration and anger about being left behind, something that Graves says is a powerful motivator that campaigns should not underestimate. 

Affordability issues could be key to motivating voters in the provincial election. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Graves describes the sentiment as "economically pessimistic, worried about the future … very unhappy with the direction of the country and Ontario." He said the polling indicates it is helping fuel populist support for the PCs. 

A crucial factor in the election will be whose formula for making it easier to get by will resonate the most with voters.

The Liberals are counting on support for their recent moves to expand rent control, reduce the burden of tuition, provide free prescription drugs to children and young adults and boost the minimum wage.

The NDP is proposing solutions on similar themes, along with a $12 per day child-care plan. 

The PCs are offering tax cuts for corporations and minimum-wage earners, a further 12 per cent cut to hydro rates funded from the tax base, and ending cap-and-trade to reduce the cost of gas and home heating. 

Millennials​

Political parties have long de-emphasized the concerns of younger voters, calculating that younger people don't turn out to vote at anywhere near the rate of middle-aged and older voters. But there are signs the millennial generation is starting to buck that trend. Higher-than-expected turnout among younger voters helped propel Justin Trudeau's federal Liberals to power in 2015.

More millennials than baby boomers will be eligible to vote in the Ontario election. The question is whether they will turn out. (Pixabay)

In Ontario in 2018, more millennials will be eligible to vote than baby boomers. Coletto's polling suggests these younger voters are more open to voting Liberal or NDP than any other demographic. 

"If Kathleen Wynne has any shot at winning the election, she has to do well among millennials," said Coletto, adding that the same applies to the NDP. For that strategy to work, he said, the parties must get millennials motivated to vote and "find a way to get them excited." 

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. Follow him on Twitter @CBCQueensPark