I’m trying to come to terms with the disappointing results of the Ontario election by crunching numbers, which is better than drinking. The first thing I noticed is that, after three weeks of stasis, in the last week of the campaign the PC Party’s predicted share of the vote was increasing towards 40 percent, the Liberals’ was falling, and the NDP staying steady at 23 percent. I would be interested in any explanation from the pollsters. Were some voters shifting from the Liberals to the PC Party? Was the PC Party taking votes from the NDP and the NDP taking votes from the Liberals? Were reticent Ford voters – a common phenomenon for supporters of populist candidates – becoming less reticent? Are there other, more subtle explanations?
Progressives versus Conservatives
If you consider the Liberals, NDP, and Greens as parties of the left, often called progressives, their share of the vote adds up to 53.5 percent. The conservative vote includes the PC Party, the Ontario Party, and the New Blue Party, and their share adds up to 46.5 percent. Had the PC Party and Liberal shares of the vote stayed at their level for most of the campaign, the progressive share would have been 60 percent and the conservative share 40 percent. So the actual outcome was much closer than the common conjecture – at least among progressives – that three-fifths of Ontario voters are progressive and two-fifths conservative.
Strategic Voting’s Unrealized Potential
I built a spread sheet totaling up the conservative and progressive vote in all 124 constituencies and showing which party won the seat. Conceptually, I divided the seats into four groups, those the PC Party won by large margins relative to the total progressive vote; the 40 seats the Liberals, NDP, and Greens won; seats the PC Party won in which the conservative and progressive votes were roughly equal; and seats the PC Party won despite the conservative vote being considerably smaller than the progressive vote. In seats the PC Party won by large margins, strategic voting would not have affected the outcome. In seats the progressive parties won, it likely did.
The interesting seats are those in which more strategic vote could have affected the outcome. I found 17 seats in which the total progressive vote was at least 3000 votes greater than the total conservative vote – the ones in which there was the potential for more strategic voting that could have turned the seat Liberal, NDP, or Green. An example of this type of riding is Peterborough-Kawartha, well-known as a bellwether. Conservative Dave Smith had 20,000 votes, the Ontario Party 2000, and New Blue Party 1000. The Liberals had 16,000, NDP 11,000, and Greens 2000. Had NDP and Green voters voted strategically, the Liberals could have readily won the seat, even if conservative voters voted strategically (that is, they all voted for the PC Party).
I identified another 21 seats in which the total progressive vote and total conservative vote were roughly equal, so it is much harder to say that strategic voting by progressive voters would have turned the seat.
The Resulting Legislature
Let’s assume that progressive voters were more inclined to, and effective at, strategic voting than they actually were, and the 17 seats in which the total progressive vote was at least 3000 seats larger than the total conservative vote all went any of the three progressive parties. This would give the three progressive parties 17 seats in addition to the 40 they won, for a total of 57. This is 6 seats short of a majority in the 124 seat Ontario Legislature. If the progressive parties had won some of the seats in which their total vote was equal to the total conservative vote, then the Legislature would be close to evenly split between the Conservatives and the three progressive parties.
This outcome would have reflected the 53.5 – 46.5 percentage split between progressive and conservative voters as well as the fact that conservatives dominate rural Ontario, in which constituencies have smaller populations than in urban areas.
Making Strategic Voting Happen, and the PC Party Response
As I discussed in a previous post, the progressive parties aren’t interested in encouraging strategic voting. Indeed, the Liberals and NDP devoted a lot of effort to attacking each other. It was left to the citizen’s groups to advocate strategic voting on a riding-by-riding basis.
If the progressive parties thought the Ford Government was an existential threat, they could have done things differently. They could have formed an alliance. Or they could have decided not to run candidates in every constituency. Going back to our example of Peterborough-Kawartha, the NDP and Greens could have decided not to contest it so that the Liberals would win. Or, even if they ran candidates in every seat, close to election day they could have told their supporters to vote for another party. Again, the NDP and Green parties could have recommended voting Liberal in Peterborough-Kawartha.
Had the progressive parties acted more cohesively, the PC Party would have responded. It, too, would have encouraged conservative voters to vote strategically, and not waste their votes on the New Blue or Ontario parties. It would have sharpened its wedge issues, to weaken the progressive coalition. And it would have worked harder on voter turnout.
A Divided Ontario
In this election, Ontario was divided relatively equally between conservatives, with 46.5 percent of the vote, and progressives, with 53.5 percent of the vote. The over-representation of rural voters benefits the conservatives, making the result – even if there were more strategic voting – a tossup. The fact that turnout was so low – at most 50 percent – can only leave us wondering if this represents the true makeup of the Ontario electorate.
The Liberals and NDP, in the course of choosing new leaders, should do some soul-searching about what it means to be progressive in Ontario today, and how a progressive message could appeal to the electorate.
On a personal level, I count 56 posts of advocacy or analysis about Ontario politics since the 2018 campaign. That’s far more than on any other topic. I think it’s time for a change of focus.