ANALYSIS: Ford leads as Ontario race starts but NDP’s Horwath may be the one to watch

Click to play video: 'Desire for change will drive Ontario election, but it’s unclear what kind of change voters will select'
Desire for change will drive Ontario election, but it’s unclear what kind of change voters will select
WATCH ABOVE: After 15 years in power, even Kathleen Wynne admits people want change. But she warned about the kind of change being presented by Doug Ford and the Ontario PC Party. Meanwhile, the NDP hopes voters will tire of Wynne and Ford battling each other. Alan Carter has more – May 8, 2018

In 2014, the Liberal war room behind Kathleen Wynne wrote a script for victory that relied heavily on her Progressive Conservative opponent, Tim Hudak, playing the role of Evil Right Wing Villain.

And Hudak happily obliged.

A central part of his campaign was a promise to fire 100,000 civil servants. Even firefighters and police officers — groups normally sympathetic to a right-of-centre, law-and-order agenda — abandoned the PC party. The Liberals, knowing a good thing when they saw it, made sure every New Democrat nervous about Hudak’s promised cuts would rally to the Liberal flag to prevent a PC victory.

WATCH: Alan Carter explains why the Ontario election will hinge on questions of leadership and consistency

Click to play video: 'Ontario election will hinge on questions of leadership and consistency'
Ontario election will hinge on questions of leadership and consistency

This, of course, is a tried-and-true approach for Liberal war rooms going back years. From Preston Manning and Stephen Harper at the federal level, through to Ernie Eves and Hudak in Ontario politics, a right-wing bogeyman lets the Liberals scoop up scared voters on the progressive side of the political ledger — voters who often get abandoned once the Liberals grab the mantle of power. (See, for example, how Justin Trudeau has disappointed progressive voters who bought his lines in 2015 on electoral reform or meeting climate change targets.)

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And now, on the eve of the 2018 Ontario election, the Liberal war room has what must surely be central casting’s version — potentially — of an Evil Right Wing Villain in Doug Ford. But will Ford play the part, allowing the Liberals to replay their 2014 playbook to similar success?

Possibly not.

READ MORE: Doug Ford vows to replace sex-ed, math curricula, tie university funds to free speech if elected

First, Ford’s minders already appear to be doing their best to present their candidate as a moderate change agent who can be trusted with the mantle of premier. So far they have had some success, but there is still a whole campaign yet to play out. The success the PCs have in showing off the “charming Doug Ford” versus the success his opponents have in convincing voters he’s a millionaire bigot intent on destroying Ontario’s social safety net is definitely going to be a narrative of the campaign.

But perhaps the biggest reason the 2014 Liberal strategy won’t work in 2018 is because, in what must surely be a first in any Canadian electoral event, progressive voters nervous about Ford appear ready to rally this time to the NDP flag rather than the Liberal one in order to prevent a PC government.

In other words, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath may have a chance to do to Wynne what Wynne did to Horwath four years ago.

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WATCH: Doug Ford and Kathleen Wynne were out late Tuesday rallying the troops and reinforcing why they believe Ontarians should choose them. Shallima Maharaj has the latest.

Click to play video: 'Ford and Wynne ramp up campaigns less than a month before provincial elections'
Ford and Wynne ramp up campaigns less than a month before provincial elections

There’s a been a trio of polls in the last few days which support this possibility.

First, let’s start with the basic shape of the horse race as they leave the gate. Ipsos, in a poll provided exclusively to Global News, finds that 40 per cent of those it surveyed at the end of last week are deciding or leaning toward the PCs. Then 29 per cent are with the NDP. And 25 per cent are with the Liberals. Those numbers are roughly comparable to polls done at about the same time by Pollara Srategic Insights and Abacus Data.

READ MORE: Doug Ford’s Ontario PC Party enjoys commanding lead over NDP, Liberals: Ipsos poll

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All three of those pollsters found that Ford’s support is mighty solid. Nearly six in 10 who told Ipsos they’re voting Ford say they’re absolutely certain about their vote choice but just 34 per cent of Liberals and 27 per cent New Democrats say the same thing. “These results suggest there is still ample time for a shift in vote preferences, particularly among non-PC voters,” Ipsos said.

Again, the other polls find the same thing — that, in this election, the real battle will be between Wynne and Horwath to convince the anti-Ford vote that they are the only champion who can prevent a PC win.

WATCH: Ontario party leaders spar in first major debate before election

Click to play video: 'Ontario party leaders spar in first major debate before election'
Ontario party leaders spar in first major debate before election

And this is where Horwath has the early edge on Wynne. She and her party are easily the number two choice among all voters. And among those voters leaning Liberal, 55 per cent would consider voting NDP. But just about as many NDP voters picked Ford’s PCs as their second choice (30 per cent in the Ipsos survey) as would pick Wynne’s Liberals (31 per cent).

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Abacus, in its survey, looked at “pools of accessible voters” — the size of the voting population that would consider voting for one or another party. And sure enough, the NDP’s accessible voter pool is the largest at 62 per cent versus the PCs at 54 per cent and the Liberals at 46 per cent.

Don Guy, who was arguably Dalton McGuinty’s most influential staffer and strategist when McGuinty was premier, is now running Pollara and, after his firm polled Ontarians last week, he told Maclean’s that Horwath’s NDP “has a lot of room to grow” while the Liberals — gulp — “aren’t even close to the bottom yet.” Pollara’s horse-race number, incidentally, was nearly identical to Ipsos: 40 per cent PC, 30 per cent NDP and 23 per cent Liberal.

Notably, all three pollsters are generally of the view that while Ford and the PCs have the biggest, most rock-solid support right now, there is not a lot of possibilities for that vote “to grow.” Ford can form government with a popular vote right around 40 per cent — but if that’s his ceiling and the non-PC vote consolidates behind either Wynne or Horwath, then Ford may not have enough to be premier.

One of Horwath’s biggest obstacles to pulling off the coup of convincing all New Democrats and anti-Ford Liberals to get behind her may be, strangely enough, the downtown Toronto socialist rump of Horwath’s party that, in 2014, abandoned her because they thought her campaign slogan “Respect for the Taxpayers” was some sort of code that signalled she was abandoning progressive principles.

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WATCH: A 2014 campaign attack ad from the Liberals aimed at persuading progressive voters to abandon the NDP in favour of the Liberals. Will Wynne’s Liberals try to repeat this strategy?

Indeed, one of the New Democrats who lost his downtown Toronto seat said as much to The Toronto Star right after the election: “Having ‘respect for taxpayers’ was a message to many people in the Annex and Seaton Village that reminded them of Mike Harris,” Rosario Marchese said as he reflected on the end of a 24-year run as an MPP. “They were upset with the leader and in their mind we were moving to the right. It didn’t matter what I said. They had their impressions.”

And yet, for all the hand-wringing by the downtown Toronto crowd, Horwath’s “kitchen table” approach to talking about government finances impressed tens of thousands of new NDP voters elsewhere in the province so much so that the losses the NDP suffered in Toronto were offset with gains elsewhere. Indeed, by the end of the general election in  2014, Horwath’s seat count and popular vote province-wide was the best ever for an NDP leader except for that time Bob Rae won in 1990.

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The vote is just under a month away. Many, many, many more Ontarians want a change at Queen’s Park than want the status quo.

Ford and the PCs are the odds-on favourite to fulfil that wish for change.

But there are decent enough odds to think Ontarians just might go and do what voters in Alberta and B.C. did in their most recent provincial elections: Pick the orange door this time.

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