Friday, January 24, 2014

Ontario Feb. 13 2014 By-elections: A preview of a spring election?

The February 13, 2014 Ontario by-elections in Thornhill and Niagara Falls may give us a bit of a preview of a potential spring election in Ontario. However, there are only two seats at stake in a broad and diverse province. Last summer's by-elections were interpreted as bad for the Hudak PCs by the media and others, while I expressed a contrarian view.

The most recent Forum polls give the PCs a six or seven point lead while the last Ipsos Ontario poll (in November) had the Liberals ahead. If the Conservatives do have the lead suggested by Forum then they should easily win the two by-elections. Here are the results for 2011

Forum has not had good experience with by-election polls, as commented upon in this blog here, but they have forged ahead with a new poll giving the PCs leads in both ridings. The results are broadly consistent with Forum's earlier province-wide soundings.

Tim Hudak has made a significant tactical shift in these campaigns by including attacks on the NDP in both his speeches and this radio ad, which among other things refers back to the Rae days of the early nineties, something most voters would not remember (in the ad it sounds incomprehensible to me). Hudak`s speech sounded like the PC leader was frustrated by an inability to get as many defecting Liberals as he feels he deserves. The ad focuses on how much legislative support the NDP has extended to the Liberals (largely to help pass two budgets since 2011).

The real problem Hudak may face down the line is that even if we accept the recent PC lead at face value, the polls clearly indicate he would be unable to win enough support for a majority. Even with a seven point margin over the Liberals, a lead that one might expect would be sufficient, the PCs by my estimate fall a few seats short of a majority (Forum says the Liberals would have the most seats but this is clearly wrong).

Although the NDP has been tilting a bit to the right recently, talking about "tax relief" and even supporting Rob Ford's effort to meet with Wynne, they would still make quite uncomfortable bedmates for the PCs, so if Hudak wins the minority now indicated expect him to try to orchestrate an early second election in order to win a majority.

Can Kathleen Wynne capture the most seats in the expected spring election? She has slightly improved the Liberal performance in the polls overall since becoming Liberal leader (compared to how McGuinty performed after the 2011 election).

Recently she received a 35% approval rating in an online Angus Reid poll on the popularity of Canadian provincial premiers. If one takes that as a proxy for what level of popularity is potentially available to the Ontario Liberals, it might be just enough for a minority win.

One can say a Wynne Liberal victory is within the realm of the possible, if not a probability at the moment. There is no doubt that these by-elections are an important testing ground for a Liberal campaign and that is why we are seeing a variety of messaging being rolled out, for example, a restatement of Wynne's commitment to pension reform by appointing Paul Martin as an adviser.

Hudak's continuing problem is his anti-labour and strongly conservative ideology, positioning that actually cost him a candidate for the next election recently. He likes to cite Michigan's so-called "right-to-work" law, but would be well advised to note that the law itself is not popular there and may be contributing to polls that suggest a Democratic takeover of the Michigan state legislature might occur later this year.  Even a small move towards the centre would be in Mr. Hudak`s interest.

One key point about Ontario is that the combination of a falling Canadian dollar combined with increasingly better prospects for growth in the U.S. economy suggests that province`s growth might improve significantly relative to the stagnation that has confronted Ontario since the downturn began in 2008.  That will help whoever wins this spring regardless of what policy path they adopt.