The Ontario election is emerging as a three-horse race, as a posthumous wave of affection for Jack Layton has propelled the provincial NDP to its highest levels of popular support since the Bob Rae era.
As campaign buses hit the road, Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives and Dalton McGuinty's governing Liberals remain the front-runners. But a strong degree of volatility, in an electorate only starting to pay close attention, has all the parties thinking big.
A new poll by Nanos Research, conducted last week for The Globe and Mail and CTV, reveals very different challenges for the three major-party leaders. For Mr. McGuinty, the danger is that – after eight years in power – voters have seen a little too much of him. Meanwhile, Mr. Hudak and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath are both struggling to introduce themselves.
Mr. McGuinty's platform, released in full on Monday, is meant to reinforce the more positive aspects of his persona, including his image as the "education Premier." Its centrepiece pledge is to spend nearly $500-million annually to provide 30-per-cent tuition grants to all but the most affluent students.
At the same time, the Liberals are making much of the fact that – with the province facing a $14-billion deficit – their agenda calls for less new spending than those of the other parties. Their messaging aims to strike a contrast with the rookie leadership of the opposition parties and capitalize on the same sort of nervousness about a fragile economy that helped win Prime Minister Stephen Harper a majority government this past spring.
Although the provincial Tories enjoy a narrow advantage in popular support, 35.4 per cent to the Liberals' 31.9 per cent, Mr. Hudak has made a positive impression on just 21.5 per cent of voters; the rest either don't know him or don't like him. And while Ms. Horwath's New Democrats have surged to 22.8 per cent, 56 per cent of voters have yet to form any impression of her.
To some extent, the opposition parties will be happy to allow this election to be a referendum on Mr. McGuinty's leadership. Forty-three per cent of respondents to the Nanos poll described the Premier in negative terms, relative to 32 per cent who described him in positive ones – reinforcing other surveys that have shown a desire for change.
But Mr. McGuinty will not be judged in isolation; voters will have to decide if they prefer one of the alternatives.
The Tories have already released their full platform, including tax breaks and controversial law-and-order measures such as forced labour for inmates, but have gotten limited traction.
Mr. Hudak, seemingly frustrated with his party's difficulty in getting noticed, has recently reverted to the sorts of stunts that he relied on at the start of his leadership, including appearing at events with a carnival-style "wheel of tax," meant to remind voters of the levies Mr. McGuinty has previously imposed. The obvious risk, if he maintains that strategy, is that he will legitimize the Liberals' argument that he lacks substance.
Although the NDP has courted controversy by shifting away from traditional party values toward pocketbook populism, including promised relief on home-energy bills and gasoline prices, it's mostly banking on Ms. Horwath's personal likeability. Much will be riding on her ability to strike a favourable contrast with the other leaders in the Sept. 27 leaders' debate. If she fails to do so, then and on the campaign trail, her party's momentum could quickly wear off.
Over the long weekend, there was a palpable sense of nervousness among insiders from all three parties. Their internal research, much like the public polling, has shown that support is soft all around. As Ontarians start paying attention to all three leaders, it will begin to harden – but nobody knows quite how.