Despite modest turnout increase, negative campaigns likely kept voters at home, says prof
By Mike Pearson, News staff
Ontario Liberals are returning to Queen’s Park with a majority government despite winning the support of just 20 per cent of eligible voters.
According to McMaster University political science professor Peter Graefe, negative campaigning, a relatively low voter turnout and strategic voting all helped the Liberal Party win last Thursday’s provincial election, resulting in 58 seats for the Grits, 28 for the Progressive Conservatives and 21 for the New Democratic Party. The numbers were adjusted slightly on the weekend after Elections Ontario revealed a clerical error had mistakenly awarded a Thornhill seat to the Liberals when it was in fact won by a Conservative.
While voter turnout increased compared to the 2011 election, the province-wide figure still showed only 52.1 per cent of Ontario’s 9.2 million eligible voters cast a ballot. The 2011 turnout rate was 48.2 per cent according to Elections Ontario.
Despite the modest increase, Graefe said negative campaigns by both the Liberals and NDP may have contributed to voter apathy.
The Liberals focused on attacking Conservative job and spending cuts while also accusing the NDP of abandoning its core values for promising things like tax cuts for small businesses that create jobs.
The NDP, in turn, highlighted Liberal scandals, such as the cancelled gas plants which cost taxpayers $1.1 billion.
“For those two parties, I think they should be a bit ashamed of themselves, for running campaigns that they knew were going to reduce voter turnout,” said Graefe.
As it has for the past two decades, strategic voting continued to be a thorn in the side of the NDP. Despite easily holding their three Hamilton seats, Graefe said strategic voting cost the party at least two seats in the Toronto area, including veteran MPP Michael Prue.
While the NDP held its ground in terms of seats, it no longer carries the balance of power in the legislature.
Graefe said that while the NDP succeeded in finding new voters, most of them likely came at Hudak’s expense, allowing the Liberals to win the race.
“If Andrea Horwath had been more efficient to lock in messages, before the campaign or even in the late stages of the campaign when the Liberals ran quite hard against the NDP as being sell-outs to their historic vision and mission, the NDP would have done better, at least in terms of popular vote,” Graefe said.
While Conservative leader Tim Hudak bemoaned the union-backed Working Families Inc. and its campaign urging members not to vote PC, Graefe said the campaign simply helped illuminate the Tory platform.
“I think the unions in Ontario have very weak connections in terms of politics, with their members,” said Graefe. “And so, I think their biggest success was to simply allow people to see what was in Hudak’s platform. He delivered the message that he wants to cut 100,000 (public sector) jobs. They were really telling the story about what Tim Hudak promised.”
As the Official Opposition for a third straight term, Graefe said the PC Party must decide whether to compromise on its Republican-style political agenda or move more to the centre of the political spectrum. By naming a new leader following Hudak’s resignation, Graefe said the party will have a chance to reinvent itself and emerge from the era of former premiers Mike Harris and Ernie Eves.
“Things that worked in the 1990s for convincing Ontarians that they had to change, Ontarians aren’t necessarily buying them in 2014,” Graefe said.