By Geoffrey Stevens
The Ontario election on Thursday will not be decided by party policies nor by leaders’ appeal. It will be determined by the party machines – the ability to get supporters out to the polls.
The election could be that close. Just take a look at a website called “threehundredeight.com.”
The site (it takes its name from the number of seats in the House of Commons in Ottawa) is operated by Eric Grenier, a political analyst/stats junkie. Grenier is not a pollster himself. Rather, he takes opinion polls commissioned by other organizations, consolidates them, assigns weights to them, adds a pinch of previous voting behaviour, and out of this statistical blender, he produces aggregate numbers. He’s usually pretty accurate.
As of Saturday, threehundredeight.com showed the popular vote breakdown as follows: Progressive Conservative 34.2 per cent, Liberal 34.1, NDP 25.9, Green 4.5. These numbers were derived in part from the four most recent province-wide polls, each showing much the same picture: Environics Research for Canadian Press: PCs 36, Liberals 35; Nanos Research (for Globe and Mail and CTV): Liberals 37.7, PCs 34.4; Leger Marketing (for Sun Media): PCs 34, Liberals 32; Angus Reid (for Toronto Star): PCs 34, Liberals 33.
(The first two polls were traditional telephone surveys while the second two were conducted online. The method didn’t seem to make any difference. In each poll, the gap between the leading parties was within the margin of error – meaning a statistical dead heat. )
The minuscule PC lead of one-tenth of one per cent on the threehundredeight.com website does not translate into a Tory minority government or even a tied result with the Liberals. The regional distribution of popular support – which party is projected to have the most votes in areas with the most winnable seats – favours the governing Liberals.
Grenier’s seat projection on Saturday (and it could well change before election day) was: Liberal 54 (compared to 71 seats won in the 2007 election); Tory 32 (26 in 2007); NDP 21 (10 in 2007). Those 54 seats, if they all go Liberal, would give Dalton McGuinty a bare majority in the 107-seat Legislature – or a tiny working majority if he appointed an opposition member as speaker, as he presumably would.
However, oregional distribution of support is only one factor. Voter turnout is another. All pollsters ask respondents how likely they are to vote. What they cannot measure is how many supporters of a given party will in the end actually make the effort to cast their ballots. People get busy, they don’t think their vote will matter, or they simply forget. The party that can get the largest number of their marginal supporters to the polls will win close ridings.
Experience suggests that in Ontario the Tories are best at this. Their support tends to be “harder” or more committed than the other parties’, and thus more likely to vote. In the federal election last May, pollsters found they needed to bump the Conservatives’ numbers up by about one percentage point to allow for the greater likelihood of voting.
A provincial election is different than a federal one, of course, but each of the parties draws on the same pool of people to organize polling divisions, knock on doors and run its voting day operation, federal or provincial. In the federal election, these Conservative stalwarts seemed more energized and better organized than their opposite numbers in the Liberal party.
What is all this likely to mean on Thursday? Since the leaders debate last week, I have a sense that Andrea Horwarth and the NDP have gained some momentum while the PCs, whose early lead was already dribbling away, lost a bit more ground. The Liberals seem frozen in place.
Taking account of the turnout factor, I’d guess something fewer than 50 Liberals – enough for a minority government in alliance or coalition with the NDP. The weaker the Liberals, of course, the stronger the NDP would be in the government.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
(published Oct 3, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)