Ontarians head to the polls today to elect their 41st government. All indications are that the results will be close — so close that a number of pollsters and analysts are refusing to predict how the dice will roll.
The Liberals under Leader Kathleen Wynne are hoping to upgrade to a majority after 2½ years of minority rule, while the Progressive Conservatives and NDP are hoping to turf them from power.
The various Liberal government scandals of recent years have loomed large on the campaign trail, but so have the grand promises of PC Leader Tim Hudak: to slash 100,000 public sector jobs, including teaching positions, and to create one million private sector jobs.
The race will come down to the wire. Here are six factors to watch for:
1. The Liberals' record
If Wynne pulls off a victory, whether it's a majority or minority, she will have triumphed against the formidable adversity of scandal. Time and again during the campaign — from the parties' campaign kickoffs to the opening minutes of the leaders' debate to the campaign's final day — her rivals have harped on the gas-plant cancellation scandal, the Ornge air ambulance spending scandal and the eHealth non-tendered contracts scandal.
To be sure, even when the federal Liberals were daunted by the sponsorship scandal in 2005 and had to wage an election campaign a month after the first report of a public inquiry, early polls still put them in the lead. It was not until the RCMP confirmed a month into that campaign that it was investigating possible insider trading within the Finance Ministry that Liberal fortunes plummeted.
In a similar twist, in this Ontario campaign, the Ontario Provincial Police announced last week that it had obtained a court order to get more documents from the provincial legislature as it probes the gas-plant affair. The force also confirmed that officers had questioned former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty, but that he was not a subject of their investigation.
However, in the latest polls, the Ontario Liberals appear to be more resilient. Tonight's election results will show just how much.
2. The Greater Toronto Area
Like it or not, the Toronto area is the centre of the electoral universe in Ontario. It's nigh impossible to take power at Queen's Park without winning at least a handful of the 40-plus ridings from Oshawa to Oakville and north to Newmarket. Last election, those constituencies were mostly a sea of red, with a speckling of NDP orange and Tory blue. A number of those wins were squeakers for the Liberals, and they'll have a tough time holding on tonight.
But the other parties will have to make more than nominal headway in the Greater Toronto Area if they want to form a majority government. And for the Liberals to upgrade to a majority, they'll need either to poach some seats from the NDP, which currently has six in the Greater Toronto Area, or make incursions into traditional Tory territory bordering on the region.
3. Which Hudak jobs message did voters hear?
Hudak has made two headline jobs pledges in this campaign: To create one million new "good paying" jobs in Ontario within eight years, failing which he will resign, and to cut 100,000 jobs from the public sector. And while few doubt the latter promise, the former jobs claim has been subject to skeptical scrutiny since Day 1. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal chief Wynne accuse Hudak of "bad math," while various economists who have weighed in have expressed similar doubts.
In a campaign that some observers say the Tories could have won with a low-key, reasonable platform promising stable change, the bold million-jobs agenda may have painted the Progressive Conservatives and Hudak as too risky. "I think that it put a big target on him in a sense of saying, 'Can you really create a million jobs over eight years?'" Cameron Anderson, an associate political science professor at Western University in London, told CBC News this week.
4. Where does the progressive vote go?
The fortunes of the NDP and Liberals could both rest on what progressive voters decide to do at the ballot box. A number of prominent labour leaders said the Liberals' spring budget was the most progressive fiscal program in years in Ontario and were disappointed Horwath's party opted not to support it, forcing an election instead.
Still other party NDP stalwarts said they saw Horwath's platform as a shift toward rightist populism. Like-minded voters could temporarily shift Liberal instead in a strategic bid to deny power to the PCs, or simply fail to show up at the polls today. For her part, Horwath's platform, with its promise of across-the-board cuts to auto insurance rates and electricity bills and a university tuition freeze, might attract more middle-ground voters and counteract strategic voting by progressives.
5. The polls
Polling has been all over the map during the campaign. As Jaime Watt, a public affairs specialist and former Tory campaign adviser, said Wednesday morning on CBC Radio, "We've had some challenges with polling in the last number of elections."
The latest numbers from Ipsos Reid suggest the race could be a dead heat between all three parties, while Forum Research's results suggest a 19-point spread between first and third place. The lead in the various polls, by four different firms, has seesawed between the Liberals and PCs, even when the numbers only consider people who say they're likely to vote.
Watt suggested polls should only be considered as one part of the picture.
"You've got to think about some other things as well, like, is the money continuing to come in? What is the response at the door when people are canvassing? If you're running tele-town halls, how many people are showing up? What are ordinary people saying, like my taxi driver this morning?... I listen much more to them than just the polls."
If there's any lesson from the last B.C. and Alberta campaigns, it's that the polling picture leaves things wide open for today's election.
6. The non-issue: Canada's 1st gay premier
It may be a sign of the times: The sexual orientation of the Liberal leader, the first openly gay premier in Canadian history, hardly registered in the election campaign. It came up once on the hustings, on May 23, when in a speech to a group of immigrants Wynne said that she and partner Jane Rounthwaite can "live without fear" thanks to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Newspapers mentioned Wynne's sexual orientation twice more in passing. And an Ottawa Citizen columnist excoriated a post-debate editorial cartoon that depicted Wynne's smashed glasses and bloody, knocked-out teeth, saying it played into themes of gay bashing and violence against women.
But there was nothing like the 2007 Quebec election campaign, when a radio host made homophobic remarks on-air about then Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair, who is gay.
If Wynne wins tonight and also becomes the country's first ever elected openly gay premier, it will follow a campaign where it was almost entirely a non-issue.