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Why the Ontario election is too close to call

September 26th, 2011 ·

By Geoffrey Stevens

The Ontario election is as close as it is because there is no defining issue – nothing any party can seize and run away with.

That’s why, with 10 days to go to Oct. 6, the race seems to get tighter with each successive poll, culminating with the massive (40,750-respondent) poll by Forum Research on the weekend that put the governing Liberals and the challenging Progressive Conservatives in a dead heat at 35 per cent, with the New Democrats within hailing distance at 23 per cent.

There are reasons to be wary of the Forum numbers. They are the product of what is known, disparagingly among its critics, as “robo polling” – officially “IVR” (for Interactive Voice Response) polling. A computer picks your phone number, a computer voice asks the questions and directs you to the numbers to press to record your responses, and a computer tabulates the results. There is no human intervention or supervision.

The established polling companies don’t like IVR polls. They don’t trust them at all. But the technology is too new to have a track record that news organizations can assess. The new Forum Research poll is very large – most political polls have a sample size of only1,000 to 2,000 respondents – and this one claims a minuscule margin of error of just 0.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20. Its results could be dead on. They could be wildly wrong. Or they could be somewhere between on the mark and out to lunch.

Because the sample is so large, Forum claims it can give a breakdown for each of Ontario’s 107 ridings to within about five percentage points. These numbers show the PCs ahead in the three Kitchener seats and in Cambridge, but trailing the Liberals in Guelph. This would mean a gain of two seats – Kitchener Centre and Kitchener-Conestoga – from the Liberals, if the robo poll numbers are accurate.

Province-wide, Forum’s results are roughly consistent with those of other, conventional pollsters. They are all forecasting a tight contest that, if anything, is growing closer as an early Tory lead shrinks.

There is a sense among voters that it is time for a change, but that sense is not quite strong enough, insiders say, to unseat the Liberals and deliver the election to the Conservatives.

There are lots of issues, but none that seem capable of moving voters en masse. Everyone agrees that high taxes are an issue and the harmonized sales tax is large part of it. But no party is able to offer a compelling answer.

The Liberals have the Ontario Clean Energy Benefit, a program under which they write cheques to homeowners to offset the added burden of the HST on hydro bills; they say will continue this program until the end of 2015. The Conservatives and New Democrats both promise to eliminate the provincial portion of the HST (that’s eight points) on electricity and home heating costs. And the NDP says it will gradually phase out the HST on gasoline.

It hard for average Ontarians to tell which platform is best. The differences are not dramatic enough to cause voters to stampede in any one direction

The Liberals’ have a Green Energy Act that they boast would create 50,000 new jobs in the green energy sector in Ontario. The Conservatives say these are “phantom” jobs and they would scrap the Green Energy Act. But what if they are not phantoms? Where would the Tories find 50,000 new jobs to replace them?

All parties say they will reduce waiting rimes in Ontario hospitals. But how and when they will do it – and how they will afford it – is not at all clear.

In an election that lacks clear and defining issues, parties and candidates are left nibbling at the margins – emphasizing insignificant differences and attacking their opponents instead of promoting their own visions. It becomes uncommonly difficult to make a choice, which is what the polls are telling us.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

(published Sept 26, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)

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