In less than two months, Dalton McGuinty will be asking Ontarians to hand his Liberal Party its third consecutive majority government, something that has not been awarded in the province since the days of the Big Blue Machine.
Frequently polled as one of Canada's least popular provincial politicians, Mr. McGuinty has a steep hill to climb in order to solidify himself as the longest serving Liberal premier since Sir Oliver Mowat gave up the job in 1896.
With the brief exceptions of the aftermaths of the 1919 and 1990 elections, Ontario has been governed by either the Liberals or the Tories since confederation. Whereas the Liberals held sway in Ottawa for most of the 20th century, the Progressive Conservatives and their antecedents have ruled from Toronto for about three out of every four years since 1905. The longest Tory stewardship of Ontario lasted 42 years, from 1943 to 1985.
Since then, Ontarians have not been willing to give any government a third term and on one occasion, that of the NDP era between 1990 and 1995, denied a second.
Ontario's varied geography makes its politics less regionally polarized, with all three major parties able to win seats in urban and rural areas and in most of the major cities.
This is especially true for the Liberal Party, which has enjoyed the support of voters in every region of the province since the end of Tory dominance. In the north, the Liberals have been strongest in and around Thunder Bay but have also recently been the party of choice in the ridings along the shores of Lake Superior.
In eastern Ontario, the Liberals have been aided by their cornering of the francophone vote, and are traditionally strongest in the easternmost part of the province and in the national capital. The southwestern Ontario base for the Liberals has been in Essex County and Windsor.
Toronto and its suburbs, however, are key to the party's electoral success though the Liberals have not had as much luck in the downtown core of the provincial capital along Lake Ontario as they have had on the outskirts of the city.
The PCs, on the other hand, primarily have their base in rural Ontario, particularly the swathe of land between Lake Nipissing and London. The party has also had good performances in the wider GTA and in rural Ontario west of Ottawa. Torontonians elect Tories when the province swings that way, but generally speaking the PCs have had much more difficulty in the city than their Liberal and NDP rivals.
Cracking Toronto will be necessary if Tim Hudak, who took over the helm of the Progressive Conservatives in June 2009, wants to be premier. It will be a tall order for Mr. Hudak in his first campaign as party leader, whereas Mr. McGuinty has directed the Liberals since 1996. But the former cabinet minister is no neophyte to Ontario politics, being first elected to the Ontario legislature in 1995.
The New Democrats, on the other hand, are led by a relative newcomer. Coming from a municipal background as a Hamilton city councilor, Andrea Horwath has sat in Queen's Park since 2004 and has been leader of the NDP since March 2009.
The NDP has gone through feast and famine over the last few decades, and has won as many as 74 seats and as few as seven since the 1990 election. Though the party won seats in every part of the province under Bob Rae in that vote, the NDP's heartland can be found in northern Ontario, particularly its rural parts, and the downtown core of Toronto. The party is also a factor in Hamilton, downtown Ottawa and the Niagara Peninsula, but is far less present elsewhere.
Ms. Horwath is hoping that the federal NDP's surge will boost her own fortunes, as the provincial party has yet to return to the levels of influence it had prior to the disastrous 1995 election. The NDP has been a marginal third party for the last 16 years, whereas it had formed the Official Opposition, and has been kingmaker in a minority legislature, before.
Over the last four elections, support has shifted primarily between the Liberals and the Tories. In the 1995 and 1999 elections, the PCs received 45 per cent of ballots cast and a majority of the seats in the legislature, while in the 2003 and 2007 elections it was the Liberals who took between 42 and 47 per cent of the vote, pushing the Tories down to 35 per cent in 2003 and 32 per cent in 2007. The NDP has increased its vote share in the last two elections, but still only attained 17 per cent four years ago. The Greens, with eight per cent support in 2007, can play the role of spoiler in a few select ridings but is unlikely to elect its first MPP.
The last election did not differ from the one before it to a great extent, with few ridings changing hands and no party varying from 2003's haul of seats by more than three.
The Liberals took 45 per cent or more of the vote in Toronto, the GTA, Ottawa, and southwestern Ontario, and were only bettered by their opponents in central Ontario, where the Tories took 43 per cent of the vote to the Liberals' 32 per cent. The PCs were also competitive in eastern Ontario, at 39 per cent support, but took less than one quarter of ballots cast in Toronto and the northern part of the province.
The New Democrats did best in the north (34 per cent) and Toronto (22 per cent), while being barely present in the central and eastern parts of Ontario.
Most of the gains the parties did make can be attributed to the four seats that had been added to the legislature. Elsewhere, a few seats were swapped between the Liberals and the Tories in the GTA and southwestern Ontario, while the Liberals and the NDP swapped a few seats themselves in Toronto and Hamilton.
A repeat of 2007's docile result on October 6 looks unlikely.
Things were looking better for Mr. McGuinty in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 election, as his party enjoyed a comfortable, double-digit lead over the Tories for about two years. But in the fall of 2009, shortly after Mr. Hudak took over the helm of the PCs, the race tightened and the two parties ran neck-and-neck until the end of 2010, when the Tories roared ahead. Since then, they have held an eight to 10 point lead with only a few blips, while the NDP has been hovering around 20 per cent for most of the last four years.
The two most recent polls from Ipsos-Reid and Forum Research, conducted in June and July, put the gap between the Tories and the Liberals at around 10 points, with the New Democrats between 22 and 24 per cent.
In addition to trailing behind the Tories, the Liberals will be further hampered by almost one-fifth of its caucus not running for re-election. These seats will be up for grabs even more than would be the case with the party's lagging numbers.
To make matters worse, Mr. McGuinty will have a two-front election battle on his hands.
On his right, the PCs will be targeting seats in southwestern Ontario and in and around Toronto, particularly in areas where federal Conservatives were elected in the spring. Indeed, these two regions of the province will likely feature some of the province's most hotly contested and close ridings on election night. The Tories will also be putting pressure on the Liberals in eastern and central Ontario, as well as in the Niagara Peninsula.
On his left, the New Democrats will be working to push the Liberals out of northern Ontario and downtown Toronto. A hard swing to the NDP could hand the party as much as 25 or 30 seats, and bump the Liberals to third spot in Queen's Park.
Mr. McGuinty intends to run on his record, but after eight years the polls indicate that Ontarians are in the mood for some change. He does have a trump card, however, in the relative inexperience of his two opponents. The political veteran used this to full advantage in his victory over PC leader John Tory in 2007 after trailing in the polls, but there may not be any rabbits left to pull out of his hat.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.