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Fear of the alternative trumps the desire for change

In more than a decade in power, the Ontario Liberals had racked up a laundry list of scandals, including one that had driven out the former premier and had police crawling around his old office. The province's finances were a mess. Its economy was not in much better shape.

It was the sort of status quo that voters want to replace. And virtually every opinion poll showed most of them felt exactly that way.

That the Liberals nevertheless crushed their opponents on Thursday, not just holding on to government but regaining the majority they lost two-and-a-half years earlier, is a useful reminder that a wish for change just is not the all-powerful factor we tend to think it is.

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In this case, a new exit poll suggests, other considerations trumped it – even among many who thought it was probably time for the Liberals to go.

As part of its Listening Post project for The Globe and Mail aimed at better understanding perspectives within the electorate, Innovative Research Group used an online panel on Thursday and Friday to survey 850 Ontarians who voted in the election. Weighted to ensure samples of each party's supporters reflected the popular vote, it found that 61 per cent of people who cast ballots agreed it was "time for a change in the Ontario government," next to only 21 per cent who disagreed.

But among voters who thought it was time for a change, a good number also agreed that while the Liberals had their problems, they were still the best party to form the government. According to the poll, 17 per cent of all voters held these contradictory views – and nearly six in 10 of those people, referred to by Innovative Research's Greg Lyle as "time-for-a-change Liberals," voted for the governing party.

In other words, the survey suggests nearly 10 per cent of the electorate supported the Liberals despite believing it was probably time to replace them.

Why would they do that? Mostly because fear of the alternative trumped the desire for change.

Nearly nine in 10 time-for-a-change Liberals agreed (nearly seven in 10 strongly) that they were "afraid of what Tim Hudak and the PCs might do if they form government." And while they had the option of going with Andrea Horwath's NDP, half of them expressed concern that doing so would split the vote and help the Tories get elected.

It likely helped tip the balance for many of these voters that Kathleen Wynne had replaced Dalton McGuinty at the Liberals' helm, making it easier to vote for her party. Seventy per cent of the time-for-a-change Liberals said they had a favourable impression of Ms. Wynne, next to only 22 per cent who said they had an unfavourable one.

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Tellingly, 42 per cent of these voters said they had a unfavourable view of how Mr. McGuinty ran the government, and only 25 per cent a favourable one. On Ms. Wynne's record, the numbers were almost exactly reversed.

Still, it seems unlikely Ms. Wynne's likability could have trumped fatigue with the government she inherited if all other things had been equal. That all other things weren't equal indicates, perhaps, the extent to which political strategists join many pundits and pollsters in overvaluing the appeal of change.

With some reason, Mr. Hudak and his campaign team believed they had counted too much on Ontarians looking for any excuse to ditch the Liberals in the previous campaign, and this time needed to offer a more distinct path. But they settled on an agenda, highlighted by massive public-sector job cuts, that was anathema to almost anyone who usually votes Liberal – at least partly because they thought many of those people were so fed up with the governing party they would sooner stay home than cast a ballot for it again.

Instead, Liberal voters came out in larger numbers than they did in the last election. Many of them did so holding their noses. But change evidently sounded a lot better to them in the abstract than when they considered what it might bring them.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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