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5 Observations on Public Opinion During the 2018 Ontario Election

Sun 24th Jun 2018 Add comment
by Adrian Macaulay, Director of Research & Polling 

On June 7th, 2018, the Ontario Liberal party saw their 15 year reign collapse before their very eyes and give way to a new Progressive Conservative government lead by Doug Ford. There are any number of observations that have been made about this election, however, I have focused my observations on some key points related to the public opinion polling that took place before and during the election. Consider the following:

There were 34 publicly released polls during the official writ period - May 9th to June 7th:
  • 12 were conducted through Interactive Voice Response (IVR).
  • 15 were conducted exclusively through online methods.
  • 5 were performed by way of mixed online and traditional telephone methods.
  • Only 2 polls were performed using traditional live-caller methods.
Opinion research has become increasingly expensive over time as a result of lower response rates. In order to contribute to the discussion, research firms are more likely to publish data obtained through cost-effective measures such as Interactive Voice Response or online panels. While some pollsters may eschew some methods over others, Quito Maggi of Mainstreet Research found from his research that a poll’s sampling frame is of greater value in encapsulating the mood of the electorate than how respondents were contacted.
A majority of the opinion polls published during the writ period found Doug Ford’s PCs drawing most of their support from older and male-skewing voters.
  • Exit polling found that Doug Ford’s PCs were able to form a majority government with a 14% gender gap in favour of men.
  • The NDP had a less pronounced gender gap of roughly 8% in favour of women.
  • The NDP tended to do very well among respondents under the age of 45 – beating the Tories by double digit margins among those 18-34.
  • The Tories may not have done as well with younger voters as the NDP but almost identical age gaps were found among voters above the age of 55 in favour of the PCs. These older voters greatly contributed to the PC’s victory on Election night.
The Tories may have won a tactical victory but are on track for a strategic loss if they do not grow the tent to include younger voters, women and voters in more urban parts of the province – despite Ford’s Toronto appeal. In a recent speech, Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby noted that age is one of the most predictive demographic characteristics driving polarization in western-democracies. If the Tories want to maintain control or win elections in the future they need to instill a positive message about their party to younger and more diverse audiences.

The NDP only started to see consistent growth in public support after Doug Ford become PC leader on March 10, 2018. On average, NDP averaged between 18%-25% voter intent from the summer of 2014 until March 2018. Doug Ford’s leadership helped increase NDP support and once the election was officially called the NDP saw their levels of support increase dramatically.

It is believed the NDP did relatively well in this election as a result of being able to lure progressive voters who had become increasingly dissatisfied with Liberal management as well as motivating progressives to reduce by the possibility of Doug Ford becoming premier. While roughly one-in-five voters remained loyal to the Liberals, Doug Ford’s leadership led many progressive voters to see the NDP as the only plausible and practical alternative.
Public opinion changed little since the 2014 election. Only left-of-centre political parties saw deviations in their levels of support.
  • The PC party led the pack for most of 2017 and a significant portion of 2018 regardless of who was leader. Despite some fluctuation in the polls during the election period, the Tory ~40% of the vote remained consistent (arguably) since September 2015
  • The Tories averaged 40% public support in the lead up to Election Day and received just over 40% of the vote on Election Day itself. Although there was some fluctuation during the campaign, one could argue that the PC base experienced little deviation or voter defections.
  • The election saw the Liberals and NDP exchanging rankings in the distribution of public support. The Liberals received what the NDP was presumed to getting in the lead up to the campaign “if an election were held that day”.
  • Doug Ford was consistently seen as a less favourable alternative to Andrea Horwath - a trend that was evident shortly after Ford was nominated PC leader. However, his share of the vote showed significantly less deviation than the OLP or NDP. Ford made little improvement in his favourability ratings as the campaign continued and he obtained a share of the vote that many polls showed he may obtain before the election was called.
Campaigns mattered – to the NDP! The four-in-ten Ontarians knew that they saw the PCs as their change-vote well before the election was even called. However, progressive voters were given two (arguably very similar) choices as to who would best reflect their type of progressive-change. At the end of the day the NDP was able to convince a large enough segment of the electorate that opting for full-fat is better than the status quo.
Debates are sacred but have limited influence in shaping electoral outcomes.
  • There was a fair amount of media attention on Kathleen Wynne’s performance during the final election debate late May with many journalists stated their belief that Wynne had performed very well in relation to her counterparts and could be seen as the winner of the debate.
  • Opinion polling from multiple firms showed little to no movement in the OLP voter base in the days following the debate.
  • The highest the OLP polled during the writ period was 29% in the very early days of the race and after the 25th of may the OLP failed to break 26%.
Debates play an important role in showcasing where parties stand on the issues and how political leaders carry themselves in moments of political friction. However, the electorate has become increasingly uninterested in debates. Debates are a mechanism used to solidify and harden the opinions of voters. If a voter has somewhat warm feelings towards a particular candidate and colder feelings towards others, that voter is more likely to have warmer feelings of their preferred candidate after watching the debate. Oftentimes debates will have greater utility to the participating campaigns after the event took place: they provide excellent campaign material in the form of photos, ads and soundbites to be disseminated on social and traditional media as well as campaign communications.
A final note:
I had previously written about the similarities in polling and electoral performance between the 2014 Olivia Chow Toronto mayoral campaign and Doug Ford’s campaign as PC leader. It should be stated that Ford ended up looking very different than Olivia Chow. There are a number of reasons why I thought the two campaigns were similar and that it may be possible to see similar results a second time, however, my hypothesis was proven to be incorrect. Doug Ford’s PCs were able to recover the lead from the NDP in the last week of the election and win the election. In contrast, Olivia Chow failed to recover from her rather instant drop from first to third place in polls in the last third of the mayoral race and placed third behind Doug Ford.

One reason that might help explain why the PCs were able to re-acquire the initiative in the last week of the campaign was a result of the party being able to convince small but crucial segments of centre-right voters that were, at least at some point in time, thinking of voting NDP to “come home”. Something that may have helped them make that choice was the PCs’ focus on a number of NDP candidates and highlight their previous statements or actions as a potential threat to Ontario’s future.

These attacks from both the PCs and the Toronto Sun forced the NDP to divert time and energy defending and apologizing for their candidates’ past behaviour when they could have been hammering home a positive message about change.

As the PCs started to regain the initiative they undertook a number of opportunities to highlight individual PC candidates and their qualifications to manage the province. Touting the “bench strength” of the PC candidate slate may have helped reduce any negativity red Tories may have had towards the PC brand as a result of Doug Ford’s personality or leadership style.

Grassroots will be paying very close attention to the decisions and actions of the new PC government. Stay tuned for more details.