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Toronto’s 905 suburbs turning into race between Tories and Liberals

In August, when the NDP were still riding high in national polls, the party was still targeting breakthroughs in the 905, such as the suburbs of Mississauga.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

A lot of this election has already been decided in Toronto's suburbs. A lot of it remains to be decided there, too.

The so-called 905 is where the Orange Wave crested, the place where Thomas Mulcair's NDP needed to make inroads if it wanted to keep climbing into a clear lead, but didn't. It's where Justin Trudeau's Liberals have rebounded. And it's where Stephen Harper's Conservatives have proved resilient.

It is now a region with a mostly two-horse race between the Conservatives and the Liberals. And a small shift, perhaps 5 per cent of voters, can have a big impact on who wins the national election, flipping 30 or 40 seats one way or the other. In election math, that's like sweeping Alberta or British Columbia. In 2011, Stephen Harper won a majority by winning the 905.

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There are other places with potential to alter the national race, of course, notably in British Columbia's three-party dynamic and in Quebec, where an NDP slip could resuscitate the Bloc Québécois and revive the Conservatives. But even before the NDP slid in Quebec, its hopes faltered in Toronto's suburbs.

In August, as the campaign began, the New Democrats were riding high in national polls and still targeting breakthroughs in the 905, notably in "inner" suburbs of Mississauga and Brampton just west of Toronto's city limits – areas where they surged in the 2011 campaign. Mr. Mulcair made early campaign stops in those places. But now, as October begins, their real hope for a gain in the west side of the 905 is in one riding, Brampton-East.

"For a while there, the NDP was in the race in the 905, but they've dropped off significantly," said pollster and political strategist Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research Group. In the GTA suburbs, the NDP fell from from 32 per cent just before the campaign to 16 per cent in late September, according to his firm's surveys.

A breakthrough in Toronto's suburbs would have made the NDP the clear front-runner. But the party had always found it tough in most of the 905, and voters didn't have much NDP tradition. And the Liberal campaign managed to win on the left and with clearer promises to pour money into infrastructure, and with middle-class tax cuts. The New Democrats started the campaign being seen as the party championing the middle class, well ahead of the Liberals – but Mr. Trudeau's party won back that ground and overtook them, Mr. Lyle said.

Navdeep Bains, the Liberal candidate in Mississauga-Malton and Ontario campaign co-chair, said voters clearly think the economy is the big issue. Infrastructure was already an issue in Mississauga's municipal election campaign, and gridlock makes transit infrastructure top of mind with voters. "They see it every day when they go to work," he said.

But as the Liberals in the 905 have rebounded, they've witnessed resilience in their traditional adversary, the Conservatives, as much of the Tory traditional base of support returned to the fold.

The ring of suburbs around Toronto is not uniform political territory. Closer to Toronto, they tend to lean more left; farther out, more Conservative. There are newer suburbs east of Highway 400, such as Markham, with a large East Asian and Chinese-Canadian population, with middle-class "strivers" who are more receptive to the Conservative message, Mr. Lyle said. "They've got big dreams, and they're on their way to get them," he said. To the west of Toronto, in Brampton, Mississauga or even Oakville, many of the suburbs are more established, more like Toronto, and more Liberal. The Conservatives picked up many of those ridings in 2011, but they'll be the first 905 ridings they lose, Mr. Lyle said.

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In August, Mr. Harper's supporters were drifting away, as events in the Mike Duffy trial shook some soft Conservative supporters. But many have returned.

Mr. Trudeau's gamble on stimulus spending and deficits helped him win over several voter segments, but pushed a few – those who say it's important for government to spend only the money it has – more solidly into Mr. Harper's camp. Mr. Harper's emphasis on balanced budgets helped, and the niqab issue his government created has won over some populists.

But the Conservative bounce back hasn't made it 2011 again. The party won 48 per cent of the vote in the GTA suburbs in 2011 and has 42-per-cent support now, Mr. Lyle said. But instead of the 19-point lead the Conservatives held over the Liberals in the past election, they had only a seven-point edge in late September. And a slight shift either way can turn a swath of seats red or blue – and turn the national results.

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