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The election will be won or lost along Highway 401

October 5th, 2011 ·

By Geoffrey Stevens

Tomorrow’s provincial election will be won or lost in ridings located within a stone’s throw, figuratively speaking, of Highway 401.

Dalton McGuinty, Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath have worn out the asphalt from Oshawa in the east, through Toronto and the GTA, to London in the west as they seek to shore up existing support and attract some loose voters. Now it is up to their election-day machines to get their probable, but not terribly motivated, supporters to the polls.

Whether they will turn out, and how they will vote, will depend on the level of comfort individual voters feel with the party leaders and their campaign promises. The Conservatives won the May federal election when Ontario voters decided they were more comfortable with Stephen Harper than with Michael Ignatieff.

Will this level of comfort transfer to the Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, Tim Hudak? Will the endorsements of senior Harper ministers like Jim Flaherty and Rob Nicholson help Hudak? Or will they (as I suspect) cause voters to shy away from putting too many eggs in one political basket?

“Comfort” is not a word one normally associates with McGuinty, not even when he is in “Premier Dad” mode. But after eight years in office he is very familiar. People know what to expect from him. He may bore some Ontarians, but there are no surprises with him. If comfort is not McGuinty’s thing, perhaps familiarity will do.

Andrea Horwath is no Jack Layton. She does not excite or inspire the serious-minded voters of Ontario. She is too new, her priorities too little appreciated to engender any real degree of comfort. Not yet. Comfort may come over time, but it won’t be in this election.

Here are a few ridings to watch when the polls when the polls close tomorrow night. In the east, Oshawa, a three-way battle won by the Tories in the 2007 election, could be a cliff-hanger. The main threat comes from the NDP.

Greater Toronto is the Liberal bastion, the heart of the party’s support. Without Toronto, the Liberals are nowhere. The NDP will challenge the Liberals in the city and the Conservatives will be competitive in the 905 area, but if the Liberals can’t hold the capital, they won’t be able to win the province.

Brampton is crucial. It has exploded from a sleepy, tree-shaded town in the days when Bill Davis, the former premier, was growing up there in the 1930s and 1940s into a vibrant, multicultural city of a half-million people who will cast ballots in four provincial ridings. Although the Liberals won all four seats in 2007, they will be hard-pressed to keep at least one, maybe more, from falling to the Tories.

Moving west along 401, keep an eye on Kitchener-Conestoga where Liberal incumbent Leeanna  Pendergast is trailing Conservative Michael Harris. Some projections suggest that Pendergast’s brother-in-law John Milloy, the minister of colleges and universities, is also in trouble in Kitchener-Centre, but it would take a major upset for the Tories to take the riding. A similar upset would be needed for Tory Rob Leone, a university professor, to lose Cambridge to critical-care nurse Kathryn McGarry.

Finally, in London, where the Liberals won all five area seats in 2007, they are in danger of losing one, London-Fanshawe, to the NDP and two outlying ridings, Elgin-Middlesex- London and Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, both to the Tories.

In London, as elsewhere in midwestern and southwestern Ontario, what happens tomorrow will depend on how the vote splits. In the federal election, the Liberal vote split, some to the NDP and some to the Conservatives. Although McGuinty’s Liberals are heavily favoured to win at least a minority tomorrow, they are not nearly as dominant as they were in the 2003 and 2007 elections.

Where will the votes they lose end up? Some may stay home, but some will go to the New Democrats, and some to the Conservatives. These splits will tell the tale tomorrow night.

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 Oct 5, 2011 in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury)

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