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Horwath wins Ontario debate: MSM miss the boat

Ontario Election Debate

Reading coverage of the Ontario leaders debate, one would be forgiven for thinking that it came out a wash, with no leader really picking up support out of the televised platform. In a Globe article Adam Radwanski even opined that "despite their better efforts, they [the leaders] most likely succeeded in hardening their own support rather than moving votes."

Now, it's easy to doubt your own instincts, or be confused about the victor in this debate, especially if you missed the show. After all, each party's spin team took to Twitter and other social media platforms with a vengeance before the debate even ended, pronouncing it a decisive victory for their candidate.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and for that I turned to the only comprehensive and scientific post-debate poll. Ipsos-Reid were in the field before and after the debate, interviewing a representative sample of 1,687 Ontarians pre-debate, and 1,470 afterwards. The top line findings on their poll have been reported accurately enough, 33 per cent thought McGuinty won the debate, while 29 per cent thought Horwath did and only 25 per cent thought the same of Hudak.

But, as is usually the case, reading below the top line provides a great deal more insight. For starters, let's look at the impact that Horwath had on voters. While McGuinty and Hudak were perceived to be the winner of the debate by roughly the same number of people who expected them to win going in (in other words, their supporters), Horwath exceeded expectations by 15 per cent, leading Ipsos to comment that she "appears to have had the biggest impact on Ontarians through her performance."

But that's only the beginning of the story. The second most compelling stat in the report (I'm coming to the first, don't worry), was the stunning number of Ontarians whose impression of Horwath improved. Let's go to the report again:

it was Andrea Horwath who made the biggest impression on Ontarians as 67% say they have an improved impression of her as a result of the debate, while just 10% say their impressions worsened, representing a net score of +57, effectively making her the real winner of the debate. By comparison, Jack Layton's net improvement score in the English-language federal debate was +41 points, and +42 in the French-language debate. Three in ten (29%) have an improved impression of Dalton McGuinty, compared to a similar proportion (31%) who have a worsened impression, representing a net score of -2. Four in ten (37%) say that their impressions of Tim Hudak improved, while one in three (34%) say they worsened, a net score of +3.[emphasis mine]

Now that is a pretty stunning number, but Liberal and Conservative spin doctors would no doubt argue that people's impression of Horwath may have gone up, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll vote for her. After all, someone who hated her before might have had their impression softened, but still prefer another candidate.

So let's look at the most important piece of information in the poll, as far as I'm concerned. Back to the report we go:

With the NDP leader performing so well compared to expectations, it is interesting to note that one in ten (14%) viewers say they changed their mind about who they were going to vote for as a result of what they saw tonight, with the NDP appearing to be the biggest beneficiary among those who viewed the debates and reportedly switched their vote.

Horwath was also chosen as the leader with the best ideas and policies (35% +10), the most likeable leader (52% +8) and the most "visually attractive" (54% +12). On the issues, Horwath came out on top with viewers as the candidate they most trust on Healthcare (35%, +11) and came second on Taxes (24% +5) and Education (29%, +10).

So in summary, Horwath was the runaway winner of the debate, improving the opinion of 57 per cent of viewers, and 14 per cent of viewers will shift their vote as a result. So could one of the numerous pundits opining that no one won the debate, and that no one succeeded in moving voters, explain their position to me please?

Even taking into account margin of error and the fact that not all Ontarians watched the debate (although they'll certainly hear about it around the proverbial water-cooler) we're talking about a minimum of 5-8 per cent shift from the other parties to the NDP. Transpose that onto the most recent poll results and you're looking at the NDP above 30 per cent and in a three-way dead heat with the Libs and Cons.

In other words, ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a ball game. So I wonder if journalists didn't bother to read the Ipsos report through, inexplicably failed to notice the huge shift to Horwath which the report writers underline on several occasions, or chose to run with the story that the debate was a wash because it fit better with their own narrative of the campaign?

In any case, barring the remote possibility that Ipsos produced a rogue poll, I expect to see a significant swing to the NDP in the polls over the next week. This will leave us with a thrilling three-way race to the finish, in which Horwath has as much chance of snatching the premier's chair as either of her opponents.

The NDP are back in Ontario, and that, coincidentally, is very good news for their federal cousins. It's going to be one hell of a finish. I'm certainly looking forward to it.

                                                         ***

Although an article I wrote about Jack appeared on rabble.ca before his funeral, this article marks the official inauguration of my blog on Rabble, where I will be re-posting articles I write for ForgetTheBox.net as well as some content exclusively for rabble. I wanted to take the opportunity to welcome readers on rabble and say how honoured I am to be appearing on the site, alongside so many giants of the left in this country.

I've been a fan of rabble since Judy Rebick handed me a pin and told me about this great new site she was starting at a conference a decade ago. Over the years I have always returned for insightful commentary and cutting analysis which is, of course, completely absent from the main stream media. And babble, oh babble!

So a big thank you to Kim Elliott, rabble's publisher, and Alexandra Samur, the blogs editor, for giving me the opportunity to join the team!

This column is a regular feature on ForgetTheBox.net, where I am the news and politics editor. Please stop by and check out our rather eclectic blend of news and politics with arts and culture, all infused with a uniquely Montrealaise ethos. And for my ForgetTheBox readers, please check out rabble.ca if you aren't already familiar with the site. It is one of the largest and most influential progressive websites in the country, and my home page.

Finally, you can follow me on Twitter @EthanCoxMtl and like me on Facebook for updates, new articles and snide comments about Conservatives during Question Period.

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