Big opportunities and big risks for Ontario NDP as campaign rounds the bend

The most recent opinion polls on the Ontario election do not agree. Some show Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative (PC) party with a double-digit lead. Others have the second place NDP a mere four or five points behind. 

Some show a big gap between the NDP and the third place Liberals, as much as 13 per cent in one case. Others have the Liberals much closer, although still in third place.

All recent polls do agree on one fact though. They all say that most of the movement since the beginning of the campaign has been in favour of the NDP. Pundits call it momentum, and, based on past experience, it could change. 

For now, NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s seemingly bland slogan, “Change for the Better,” seems to be connecting with voters who want to turn the page on a decade-and-a-half of Liberal rule but consider the Ford-led party to be anathema.

NDP best on honesty and accountability, with room to grow

One polling firm, Abacus, is still, in the jargon of the trade, in the field, and plans to release its figures very soon. In the meantime, Abacus CEO David Coletto has taken toTwitterto tease followers with a series of tidbits. Coletto’s tweets tell a story highly favourable to the NDP.  For instance, the Abacus CEO reports that voters rank honesty and accountability in government as the top issue. Which party is best to handle that issue? Not the Conservatives, who have been using it as a political battering ram against the governing Liberals. No, it is the NDP. 

Housing affordability is another top-of-mind concern for voters, according to the Abacus CEO. On this one, when asked which party would handle it best, “don’t know” was the winner, with 43 per cent. But the NDP came in a comfortable second, eight points ahead of the Liberals, and more than ten points ahead of the Conservatives. 

More tantalizing than those statistical sneak peaks was this Coletto tweet: “Appears shifts still at work. More voters coming to terms with the NDP/Horwath as killing two birds with one stone: get change + stop Ford. Might be a powerful combo.”

What New Democrats are offering voters is a change of management and leadership from the scandal-plagued Liberals -- but not a significant change in policy. Of course, they do not put it that way. Horwath claims she is championing policies that are totally different from those of the Liberals’ Kathleen Wynne. When you read the NDP and Liberal platforms, however, it is hard to see the two parties as anything other than highly compatible first cousins. 

So far, the NDP’s unspoken core promise of a (slightly tweaked) status quo, with a new and uncorrupted team in power, seems to be working.  

Some are urging Horwath to take more risks and be bolder. They say she should channel some of the anger, frustration and sense of betrayal that motivates Ford’s core supporters. Horwath’s advisors, on the other hand, do not seem to think that would be a good idea. The NDP brains trust wants their leader to foster a political persona that is positive and non-confrontational, and, at the same time, experienced, compassionate and decisive. To this point in the campaign, Andrea Horwath has had success heeding that advice 

Conservative scandals keep media’s critical gaze away from NDP

The media and the two other parties have not yet got around to subjecting the NDP to the increased scrutiny the party’s standing in the polls would normally invite. For the time being, the media is too busy chasing the multiple scandals, big and small, that bewitch the PC camp. And Kathleen Wynne’s party appears to have decided that attacking the demon Conservatives will work better with the base supporters they are desperately trying keep than picking a fight with their New Democratic cousins. 

On social media, the advocates of strategic voting are in high dudgeon. Until a bit more than a week ago they were fulminating about NDP zealots so under the thrall of the narcissism of small differences that they fail to recognize the imperative to vote Liberal in order to stop the fearsome Ford.

Now, it seems, the smart strategic vote (a misnomer -- it is really a tactical vote) might be in favour of the New Democrats. 

It could be an agonizing choice on June 7 for those whose overriding aim is to keep Ford out of the premier’s office. Whatever the province-wide polls say, public opinion varies significantly from region to region and riding to riding. Your tactical vote, if that is what you want to cast, will not be the same throughout the province. 

More important, there are lots of non-PC party voters who are not in the anyone-but-Ford camp. Indeed, they are as anxious to get rid of the Liberals as to prevent the populist former Toronto city councillor from taking over. 

Both groups -- the tactical progressives, to give that group a name, and the time-for-a-change-above-all voters -- are key targets for the New Democrats. The party’s capacity to appeal with equal effectiveness to both will determine how well it does on June 7. 

There is a lot at stake. 

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