The 2015 election has reaffirmed the adage that campaigns matter.
At the beginning it looked like it would be a fight between the NDP and the Conservatives. The Liberals had dropped to third, and the political obituary that critics had started writing during the 2011 election looked as if it might be completed.
Instead, we’ve seen a resurrection of the Liberals and dashed hopes for the NDP as the campaign comes into the home stretch.
Nowhere is this more evident than in seat-rich Ontario, where #elxn42 will be decided.
And the key battleground is the greater Toronto area (GTA), where in the past two federal elections, soft Liberal supporters and independents who had supported the party in the past were driven away by Conservative ads that painted the Liberals as having weak leaders. (See Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.)
That, coupled with a dynamic campaign by Jack Layton in 2011, pushed a number of Liberals to the NDP, but many are returning to the fold. Campaigns like that of Marco Mendicino in Eglinton-Lawrence have benefited, making the race against Finance Minister Joe Oliver too close to call.
In neighbouring York Centre, Liberal candidate Michael Levitt, who is trying to retake the Liberal bastion once held by Ken Dryden, has an edge over Conservative incumbent Mark Adler.
And Rob Oliphant, the former Liberal MP in Don Valley West, looks to retake his old seat, lost to Conservative John Carmichael by just over 1,000 votes in 2011. Restrictive immigration policies and Bill C-24, which would allow the government to revoke the citizenship of dual citizens convicted of terrorism, are pushing some voters away from the Conservatives.
Liberal fortunes have improved in the crucial 905, too.
Hoping to regain the confidence of ethnic communities that once consistently voted Liberal, Justin Trudeau appointed Omar Alghabra and Navdeep Bains as his campaign co-chairs. Alghabra and Bains are credited with attracting candidates, organizers and money from their respective Muslim and Sikh communities.
As a result, the Liberals are extremely well placed in Peel, and projections indicate they could take back a swath of ridings lost in the last two elections.
While the Liberals are gaining ground, the NDP, which had high hopes of winning a significant number of seats in the GTA, has seen disappointing results in public opinion polls.
The new riding of University-Rosedale, for instance, where the University of Toronto and Annex neighbourhoods form a large portion of the riding, seems tailor made for the NDP. In the 2011 election, 44 per cent of votes there were cast for NDP candidates, based on the old riding boundaries. It should be a slam-dunk for Jennifer Hollett, but with just a couple of weeks to go, Liberal Chrystia Freeland is projected to be in the lead.
In neighbouring Spadina-Fort York, star NDP candidate Olivia Chow is in a tough race against incumbent Liberal Adam Vaughan. Chow, who is trying to resurrect her political career after a failed mayoralty bid, is pulling in any favours she has left in a riding that voted nearly 50 per cent NDP in the last election.
In Parkdale-High Park, veteran NDP MP Peggy Nash is in a tight fight with rookie Liberal candidate Arif Virani.
In each of these races the collapse of the Conservative vote has benefited the Liberals.
Part of the problem for the NDP is that Thomas Mulcair is no Jack Layton, whose upbeat 2011 campaign attracted voters tired of Harper and the Conservatives. The energy and enthusiasm that marked the last weeks of the 2011 run drew huge crowds and caused a significant shift in favour of Layton and the NDP. That’s in sharp contrast to Mulcair’s performances in the leaders’ debates, which have been flat compared to his strong showing in daily question period in Parliament.
His commitment to balancing the budget at the expense of economic stimulus seems like déjà vu all over again for Ontario voters who in last year’s provincial election saw the Ontario NDP, led by Andrea Horwath, force an election by voting against one of the most progressive budgets in Ontario’s history.
It’s no coincidence that two of Trudeau’s key advisers – campaign director Katie Telford and principal adviser Gerald Butts – are from Ontario. Both are veterans of Queen’s Park, having worked under Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty. Their understanding of the political dynamics at play here has helped the campaign significantly.
It’s also no secret that Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Harper don’t like each other.
During the provincial election campaign, Harper criticized Wynne’s plan to introduce an Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. He also made a point of refusing to meet with her on several occasions. What goes around comes around.
But while the Liberals and New Democrats fight it out, the Conservatives, who recognize that they need to hold onto what they have in Ontario if they want to stay in government, are doubling down on wedge issues to cement the support of their base.
The Conservatives have focused on a tight segment of the voting populations, seniors and homeowners. Their own internal polling is showing that they are well in front with these groups and their above average turnouts could still deliver at least a minority win for them. At the same time, the Conservatives need strong NDP numbers in Ontario to create three-way races that allow them to come up the middle. An NDP collapse would turn those ridings into dangerous two-party races.
If the NDP feels the Liberals are too serious a threat, they will focus their attacks on Trudeau and his candidates. But that’s a slippery slope, as it may convince people that the party is playing for second place and the real choice for change is the Liberals.
With a little more than a week to go before election day, a non-stop barrage of TV and online ads is aimed at changing our minds. The election that started 11 weeks ago is not turning out the way anyone predicted.
Marcel Wieder has worked in federal, provincial and municipal elections since 1974. He is President and CEO of Aurora Strategy Group.
This article originally appeared in NOW Magazine October 7, 2015