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Unlikeable PC leader could be a ‘pathway to victory’ for Horwath’s Ontario NDP: Bricker

By Peter Mazereeuw      

The New Democrats will have to make up ground during the campaign, when dust from the PC leadership contest has settled, say pollsters and NDP insiders.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, pictured here during the federal branch of the party's policy convention in Ottawa, polls much better than rival and Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, and PC leadership candidate Patrick Brown. She also polls much better than her own party. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Forget about Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. It’s the Ontario NDP that stands to gain if the public doesn’t support the winner of the leadership brawl for the front-running Progressive Conservative party in Canada’s biggest province, says pollster Darrell Bricker.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s personal brand far outperforms Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and all of the current candidates for the PC leadership among voters in the province, a poll by Mr. Bricker’s Ipsos shows. Nonetheless, the Ontario NDP sits third in the polls, and well back of the PCs.

“Right now, she’s kind of looking like Ed Broadbent, which is, everybody likes her, but not that many people are actually considering her party,” said Mr. Bricker.

The approval figures for Ms. Horwath and her party will likely meet at some point between now and Ontario’s June 7 election, he said.

“The question is, whether the party will pull her down, or whether she will pull the party up.”

The Ipsos poll, conducted for Global News Feb. 15-19, showed Ms. Horwath had a personal favourability rating of 30 per cent in Ontario, versus around 22 per cent for PC candidates Christine Elliott, Doug Ford, and Caroline Mulroney, 18 per cent for PC candidate and former leader Patrick Brown, and 16 per cent for Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne. However, those figures don’t take into account any change in public opinion caused by near-daily news stories about Mr. Brown after Feb. 19. Long-shot candidate Tanya Granic Allen was not included in the poll, but a fictional leadership contestant—Jim Smith—was included as a way of judging support for an unknown leader, and got the support of 29 per cent of PC-inclined respondents.

The vast majority of voters in Ontario—about 80 per cent—say they want a change from the current Liberal government, said Mr. Bricker, and that hasn’t been lost on the NDP. Robin Sears, a consultant lobbyist and former NDP national director, said the party has been testing political messaging based on that premise, including, “You don’t have to choose from bad to worse. You can choose better.”

Ms. Horwath said her party would bring “change for the better” during a campaign rally last week. She said only her party could provide an alternative to the Liberals, calling the PC Party a “train wreck,” the Toronto Star reported.

Right now, however, the most voters are signalling their support for the PCs. The Ipsos poll had the PCs with 38 per cent support, versus 29 for the Liberals and just 26 for the New Democrats.

“[The NDP] haven’t really moved all that much from where we saw them last year,” said Eli Yufest, CEO of another polling firm, Toronto’s Campaign Research.

“The party’s numbers aren’t moving because they’re not presenting themselves as a credible alternative to the PCs or the Liberals,” he said.

“It almost feels like Andrea Horwath is purposefully avoiding any media exposure or any contact with the Ontario electorate. I mean, she’s just nowhere to be found. No alternative policy announcements, no providing a fresh perspective, no suggesting that they are ready to take over and form government, nothing.”

PC race complicates NDP brand-building

Mr. Sears said it wouldn’t be wise for the NDP to interfere with the PC’s “dousing themselves with gasoline,” or to fight that spectacle for attention.

“If the Tories continue to self-immolate, there’s going to be a lot of very puzzled and unhappy and bewildered voters wondering what to do,” he said.  

The focus on the PC leadership cage-match, and the Liberals’ advantage in driving the news cycle as the government, mean the NDP may have to wait until the election campaign officially kicks off to get a fair chance at getting their message out, said Mr. Bricker.

“If the Tories have a problem over the next four weeks, the party that most likely will be able to take advantage of that is the NDP, not the Liberals,” he said.

The NDP’s pathway to victory opens up if the winner of the leadership race is someone voters decide they can’t support, he said.

However, it takes time to build a brand, said Mr. Yufest.

“While the PCs are scrambling to find a new leader…the Liberals aren’t necessarily building a brand at the moment. Now is probably a good time [for the NDP] to start building their brand.”

Former leader Patrick Brown and Doug Ford, the brother of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, are a nose ahead of rivals Caroline Mulroney and Christine Elliott in the PC leadership race, based on an Ipsos poll taken in mid-February that had them at 40, 39, 38, and 37 per cent support, respectively, from PC-inclined voters. However, new stories about the race and controversies tied to Mr. Brown in particular have broken nearly every day since then.

The Ipsos poll surveyed 802 Ontario residents. Online polls are not considered truly random, but the Ipsos poll is considered accurate to plus or minus four percentage points, 19 times out of 20, Global News reported.

Mr. Brown and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Ford, have numerous supporters but are also burdened with considerable political baggage. Mr. Brown resigned as leader of the party last month after two women told CTV News they had been sexually harassed by him years ago, charges Mr. Brown denied. Last week questions were raised about Mr. Brown’s finances, after a document was leaked showing the details of a proposed business deal—which Mr. Brown said was never completed—that would have seen $375,000 transferred to Mr. Brown from a man who later was approved as a PC Party candidate. Ontario’s integrity commissioner, David Wake, also asked Mr. Brown to explain why he had seemingly not disclosed income from a rental property on Lake Simcoe. Mr. Brown told reporters that he would respond to the commissioner “shortly.”

Mr. Ford made headlines in 2014 when he said a group home for autistic youth had “ruined” the surrounding community by allowing the youth outside unsupervised, where he said they had been disruptive. The Globe and Mail reported in 2013 that Mr. Ford sold hashish for several years during the 1980s. A lawyer for Mr. Ford responded at the time that the allegations were “specious” and “irresponsible.”  

The PC Party, however, was rated in the Ipsos poll as the best of the three among voters to tackle the economy and jobs, taxes, and energy costs, while the NDP was ranked tops on health care, Global News reported.

With her party lagging behind on the whole, Ms. Horwath has to “leverage her personal brand,” said Mr. Yufest, who said the NDP leader polled as more popular than Mr. Brown and Ms. Wynne throughout 2017 “by a huge margin.”

Pitch representation without the drama: Masse

Federal MPs will have relatively few opportunities to campaign for their provincial colleagues, as the House will be sitting during the election campaign period this summer.

Several Ontario NDP MPs contacted by The Hill Times said they would be financially supporting their colleagues.

Irene Mathyssen is the NDP MP for London-Fanshawe. The Hill Times file photograph

As for the party’s third-place standing?

“The campaign makes all the difference,” said NDP MP Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, Ont.)—“and we’re good on the ground.”

The NDP has the advantage of being relatively untainted by scandal, said NDP MP Brian Masse (Windsor West, Ont.).

Brian Masse is the NDP MP for Windsor West. The Hill Times file photograph

“The Wynne administration has been nothing but surrounded in those issues, and the Conservatives appear to be born in it, especially with Patrick Brown returning to the scene.”

Ms. Horwath did put her chief of staff, Michael Balagus, on leave earlier this month after allegations surfaced that he didn’t take seriously complaints from women who had allegedly been groped by former Manitoba cabinet minister Stan Struthers, while Mr. Balagus was working for NDP premiers in Manitoba several years ago, the Toronto Star reported.

The NDP’s strength is its work in constituencies, said Mr. Masse. “The question that they have to really move forward on is, how to actually demonstrate that to other areas that don’t have a New Democrat, that you can actually get good representation without all the nonsense and drama that comes and goes. That will be the challenge, will be getting that out there.”

peter@hilltimes.com                                                                                                                           @PJMazereeuw

Ontario party leader favourability, Feb. 15-19
Andrea Horwath 30%
Kathleen Wynne 16%
*Patrick Brown 18%
*Doug Ford 22%
*Caroline Mulroney 22%
*Christine Elliott 22%
*PC leadership candidate
Source: Global News Ipsos
Progressive Conservative leadership race
Support among decided respondents for leadership bid, Feb. 15-19
% PC vote % Liberal vote % NDP vote % other party
Christine Elliott 37% 22% 30% 11%
Caroline Mulroney 38% 22% 30% 11%
Doug Ford 39% 24% 35% 12%
Jim Smith* (random name used for polling comparison) 29% 24% 35% 12%
Patrick Brown 40% 23% 27% 10%
Source: Global News Ipsos

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