Friday, January 18, 2013

What fate awaits the OLP under Wynne or Pupatello?

Barring a big surprise next weekend, either Kathleen Wynne or Sandra Pupatello will be the new leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and premier of the province. How might they do in the next election?

I wrote about this for The Huffington Post Canada today, and I invite you to take a look. In the article, I spell out how I think it could play out. Here, let's take a look at what the numbers show - or at least what can be done with them.

The most recent data about who Ontarians like for the leader comes from a December 17 poll from Forum Research. It asked who Ontarians thought would make the best leader of the Ontario Liberal Party. Gerard Kennedy placed first with 36%, followed by Wynne at 23% and Pupatello at 20%. No other candidate hit double-digits. The poll also broke the numbers down by voting intentions, giving us an idea of what supporters of other parties think of the race.

Let's run a hypothetical exercise using those numbers to determine the potential support Wynne and Pupatello could draw from other parties. Forum did not disclose how many respondents said "I don't know" or "None of the above", but from the sample sizes we can estimate that number.

Kathleen Wynne was the favourite choice of 10% of NDP voters (20% of NDP voters who expressed an opinion, but 10% of the entire pool of NDP supporters) and 6% of Tories. She was also the favourite of 16% of Green voters and 10% of voters who said they intended to support an other party. In a best case scenario where Wynne is able to draw all of those voters over to the Liberals, and using the current Ontario poll averages as a base, we get the following outcome:


Liberals - 33.5%, 46 seats
Progressive Conservatives - 32.1%, 35 seats
New Democrats - 27.4%, 26 seats
Greens - 6.2%, 0 seats
Others - 0.8%, 0 seats

Wynne draws away a good deal of support from the New Democrats - and even a few Tories. It keeps the Liberals in power, but makes reliance on another party for survival all the more important. Taking votes from the Greens also helps the Wynne Liberals quite a bit.

Pupatello is not so fortunate. Her numbers among PC voters are the same - she takes 6% of their supporters - but she only attracts 8% of New Democrats and 3% of Greens. That makes it a bit more difficult for her to put the Liberals over the top, which she does by a hair:


Liberals - 32.2%, 44 seats
Progressive Conservatives - 32.1%, 36 seats
New Democrats - 27.7%, 27 seats
Greens - 7.2%, 0 seats
Others - 0.8%, 0 seats

One of the problems here is that the PC vote is pretty much locked in - only 28% said they thought one of the Liberal candidates would be a good option to lead that party, compared to 49% of New Democrats and 60% of Liberals. It was almost as if the vast majority of Tories would not even consider the question. That bars the door to Pupatello somewhat, as her appeal among New Democrats is more limited.

Nevertheless, in both of these scenarios the Liberals survive. That is a far cry from where they are in the polls right now. But what if things take a turn for the worst? Who could salvage things best?

This is a bit trickier to determine, and requires an even bigger assumption to be made. For the sake of the exercise, let us assume that if Wynne wins, the OLP supporters who said they preferred Pupatello decide to vote for another party, and if Pupatello wins, the Wynne OLP voters jump ship. These can be portioned out according to how PC, NDP, and Green voters considered the race, the assumption being that OLP voters who like a certain candidate probably agree more with the supporters of other parties who also like that candidate. It is a crude way to go about it, but I think it is the best we can do under the circumstances.

Contrary to province-wide opinion, Pupatello was the second choice among Liberal voters behind Kennedy, rather than Wynne. That means that a Wynne victory pushes 16% of OLP supporters to other parties. 52% of them go to the New Democrats, 39% of them to the Tories, and 4% apiece to the Greens and other parties. That results in:


Progressive Conservatives - 35.8%, 57 seats
New Democrats - 32.7%, 37 seats
Liberals - 22.8%, 13 seats
Greens - 7.6%, 0 seats
Others - 1.1%, 0 seats

The Tories win a majority government while the NDP is vaulted to Official Opposition status. The Liberals are reduced to a rump. This is not an unthinkable scenario, as if Wynne comes out of the gate and trips those left-of-centre OLP voters could easily move over to the NDP. This happened federally as Liberal supporters saw that the NDP became the more viable anti-Conservative option. And coming from the centre-left of the party, Wynne pushes more voters over to Tim Hudak as well.


Progressive Conservatives - 35.2%, 55 seats
New Democrats - 32.1%, 36 seats
Liberals - 23.7%, 16 seats
Greens - 8.0%, 0 seats
Others - 1.1%, 0 seats

If Pupatello wins and she falls flat on her face, the 13% of OLP voters who consider themselves Wynne supporters abandon the party. 48% go to the NDP, 31% go to the PCs, 16% go to the Greens, and 5% to the other parties. That still delivers the PCs a majority, but only just, and the rump the Liberals are reduced to is somewhat larger. This is also a plausible scenario, as Pupatello is probably less likely to lose centrist and centre-right OLP supporters than Wynne would, which might make her seem like a more viable anti-Hudak option than a Wynne-led party that is collapsing.

This exercise shows the risks and rewards that come with a Wynne or Pupatello leadership. Wynne can probably attract more support from the left, putting them ahead of the Tories, who are relatively solid. She potentially has more upside. But by pushing the party to the left, she might make the choice to jump over to the NDP easier than under Pupatello, meaning a Wynne collapse could be worse for the Liberals than a collapse under Pupatello.

All of this assumes the status quo, however. If Hudak's campaign falls apart, Pupatello might be better placed to scoop up those disillusioned PC voters than Wynne. If Andrea Horwath's campaign collapses, disappointed NDP voters may be more willing to cast their ballot for the Wynne Liberals than they would a Pupatello-led party.

But what about Kennedy? Polls show he is more widely liked than either Pupatello or Wynne, even if the OLP itself is not all that keen on him. If he does pull off an upset next weekend, what could happen then?


Kennedy scored very well among NDP voters in the Forum poll. He pulls 23% of NDP votes to the OLP. He also draws 9% of Tories and 18% of Greens.

Liberals - 38.6%, 60 seats
Progressive Conservatives - 31.0%, 29 seats
New Democrats - 23.4%, 18 seats
Greens - 6.1%, 0 seats
Others - 0.9%, 0 seats

His upside among PC voters is still rather limited, but he completely erases the gains the New Democrats have made since the last election. He gives the Liberals a majority government. These might be fairy-tale numbers due to Kennedy's name recognition alone (Hudak and Horwath are also well-known at this point, dulling his potential upside), but it is hard to argue that Kennedy wouldn't stand the better chance in a snap election than Pupatello or Wynne. If you have to spend the first two weeks of a campaign introducing yourself, you will be two weeks behind the other leaders.

Of course, this exercise is highly hypothetical and makes plenty of assumptions that may or may not be warranted. But the results do make a lot of intuitive sense. Unless Wynne or Pupatello can find some support across the aisle, we will probably find out sooner rather than later how they will do.