COMMENTARY: Ontario vote is a two-party race between PCs and NDP

The Ontario general election could well be Doug Ford's to lose, David Akin writes, though Kathleen Wynne's Liberals will concede nothing. Chris Young / File / The Canadian Press

At the risk of putting too much stock in the first leader’s debate of the 2018 provincial campaign, I had to wonder Monday evening if the next month will shape up to be a race between Doug Ford and Andrea Horwath.

And Tuesday’s Global News/Ipsos Reid poll reinforces this notion: it holds promise for two of our province’s political parties, the PCs and the NDP, but gloom for the Liberals and the Greens.

Click to play video '‘This is really a change election’: Ipsos’ Darrell Bricker on PC versus Liberal saga' ‘This is really a change election’: Ipsos’ Darrell Bricker on PC versus Liberal saga
‘This is really a change election’: Ipsos’ Darrell Bricker on PC versus Liberal saga – May 6, 2018

WATCH ABOVE: ‘This is really a change election’: Ipsos’ Darrell Bricker on PC versus Liberal saga

When three-quarters of the province is looking for change in this election, Premier Kathleen Wynne needed to come out of the gate swinging in the first debate. In that regard, she failed. She was unable to mount a credible case for re-election and instead spent much of the time on her heels. And any effort to paint her opponents as risky alternatives — particularly Ford — also came up short.

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Conversely, both Ford and Horwath did what they needed to do. Not only did both speak to their base of support, they started to alleviate some of the discomfort that some in their potential voting pool might feel about them.

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

Horwath’s pitch is essentially this: if you want what Kathleen Wynne is selling but you don’t want Kathleen Wynne, then the only choice is me. And she’s right! The question is whether that’s enough change this time around. Or will voters decide it’s not just Wynne they are rejecting, but much of what she — and Horwath — stand for.

The PC leader, on the other hand, is the only candidate who represents true change. His plan, his approach and his view of what Ontario voters want is completely different from the other two. With the desire for change so strong among voters, Ford’s message is therefore strong. And as the Ipsos poll shows, Ford’s current voting block is far more committed than those of the other two leaders.

COMMENTARY: Tom Parkin says Andrea Horwath is the new centre of Ontario politics

Given the Liberal’s third-place showing in most recent polls, some commentators have begun to raise the spectre of the 1990 Ontario election. A tired and arrogant Liberal government, an overwhelming desire for change and a brand new PC leader have some musing about the parallels between the election that saw the NDP form a majority government and today’s race.

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READ MORE: Ford a bystander in progressive-oriented Ontario debate, Wynne and Horwath both strong, experts say

While I believe that voters will send Wynne down the same path as former premier David Peterson, I disagree that the outcome will mirror 1990.

In that election, the PCs were in third place, with virtually no money in the coffers. Mike Harris lacked any provincial profile and the party machinery was limited. Federally, the Conservative government was beginning its descent into unpopularity. And voters were caught off guard by Peterson’s sudden election call just three years into his mandate.

Neither money nor profile are deficits for the new PC leader in 2018. Despite the unprecedented challenges the party has faced over the past few months, the party machinery and election readiness are strong.

Click to play video 'Kathleen Wynne tells Doug Ford: ‘I haven’t lost my way’' Kathleen Wynne tells Doug Ford: ‘I haven’t lost my way’
Kathleen Wynne tells Doug Ford: ‘I haven’t lost my way’ – May 8, 2018

WATCH ABOVE: Kathleen Wynne tells Doug Ford: ‘I haven’t lost my way’

There are, however, two factors that make me question my theory that this will be a two-party race and that the outcome is increasingly predictable.

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The first is that Kathleen Wynne is one of the most competitive campaigners this province has seen. I have to believe that this will be her last campaign regardless of its outcome. And so, despite being on the verge of losing power, she really has nothing to lose.

COMMENTARY: Omar Khan says Liberals should cast Ontario election as referendum on Doug Ford

The second factor that can’t be dismissed in this race is the vote-rich City of Toronto. In the Global/Ipsos poll, Liberal and Tory support is within the margin of error, with the NDP in third within the city limits. How those votes split in each of the newly-formed ridings can have a major impact on the outcome on June 7.

Only time will tell if my theory holds. Either way, let the race begin!

Deb Hutton was a senior advisor to former Ontario premier Mike Harris.

Deb Hutton joins Omar Khan and Tom Parkin on Global News’ regular political panel, appearing on Global Toronto and AM 640 Corus radio throughout the campaign and as part of our election night coverage.