ontario news watch

With the start of the Ontario election, analysts apply numerous metrics to assess the relative health of each campaign beyond the horse race numbers: which party is leading at any given time.

In this 6th wave Covid period, with fewer rallies, redefined leaders tours and limitations on door to door canvassing to track, external analysts increasingly rely on sophisticated data modelling to project likely outcomes, bolstered by a daily diet of tracking polls. Based on factors ranging from historic voting patterns and the application of voter issue preferences, to an analysis of social media trends, these new prophets can play a  significant role in encouraging or discouraging both volunteer support and voter turnout.

All these indicators also play a prominent role in focusing much of today’s media coverage.

From a polling perspective, indicators of momentum associated with individual campaigns, leaders’ positive/negative characteristics, the televised leader debates and the salience of individual issues framing the emerging ‘ballot question’ are all valuable tools for assessing electoral strategy.

Other ‘reliable’ measures for the media include fundraising success and third party endorsements and attacks. The Ford Conservatives have devoted significant legislative time during their first term to enhance their ability to raise large campaign donations while shrewdly limiting the spending and activities of third party critics in the year before the election.

Another metric often used is the ability to recruit high profile candidates, who can attract media attention and validate a party’s prospects,  as well as ensuring a good mix of diverse and gender balanced candidates for each of Ontario’s 124 ridings. Such an analysis is a guaranteed evergreen news story in each election cycle.

Party nominations as the Ontario election writ dropped, show the PC’s with a full slate of candidates, closely followed by the True Blues. The Liberals and the Greens have about a dozen candidates to go, with the Official Opposition NDP lagging with more than two dozen candidates yet to be announced.

An inability to nominate candidates in a timely fashion usually ensures that these long shots remain long shots because they have little opportunity to build name identification or awareness; in other circumstances, parties have lost winnable seats precisely because they could not attract a good candidate in time to take advantage of an unexpected political trend.

Elections are not coronations- campaigns do matter and unanticipated issues arise- and individual candidates may have an impact on a party’s prospects in specific constituencies separate from the overall provincial campaign.

Strategic voting calls among supporters of opposition parties in individual constituencies will likely pop up again, especially if, as expected, the Ford government is seen on the cusp of a majority victory.

While it is likely too late to implement for the upcoming Ontario election, a debate brewing in the United Kingdom about the value of parties running their own candidates in every seat carries the strategic voting discussion to a different level.

The May 5th local council elections [run under party affiliation] in the UK are seen as a major test for Boris Johnson’s government, already reeling from the ‘Partygate’ scandals associated with COVID and the hapless Brexit implementation policy. Backbench Conservative politicians and media alike believe that the results may determine Boris Johnson’s future as leader of the Conservatives.

UK Tory insiders have been actively denouncing what they claim are Labour and Liberal Democratic party decisions either not to nominate candidates or not to campaign vigorously on their behalf in a number of local council contests.

Conservative Party Chair Oliver Dowden described this cooperative planning as going well beyond a handful of seats.

Dowden’s research department has found a dip in the number of Labour and Lib Dem candidates standing this May. He alleges that this is happening by design. “Finding they have values and policies in common, not just an enemy, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens are cooperating on a local level, whether their leaders like it or not.”

As the Guardian has reported, “this breaks party rules, and so has to be done under the radar.”

These types of arrangements have been discussed in Canada as well. Before the last federal election, NDP and Green activists in Western Canada talked about  uniting to support one candidate in up to 100 ridings, where their combined vote might secure electoral change.

Until we have either proportional voting or ranked balloting in Canada [don’t hold your breath], this strategy  remains one of the few ways to challenge a strong incumbent government in a first past the post system.

There remain of course numerous obstacles to the achievement of this goal. Who determines who is clearly ahead in one constituency? How do you control the democratic aspirations of individuals who want to contest a nomination? Local polling is notoriously difficult and expensive;  up to 40% of the electorate will not make up its mind until the last ten days of the campaign.

In the absence of such decisions, minority governments remain the primary effective tool to balance competing interests and holding governments to account.

In the Westminster system, the voters have shown a remarkable ability to achieve the balance they desire, one vote at a time.

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