Thursday, June 12, 2014

Final Ontario projection: Likely Liberal, possible PC victory

Kathleen Wynne's Liberals stand the best chance of forming government in today's Ontario provincial election, with a likely return to a minority legislature. Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives will likely form the Official Opposition again, though they stand an outside shot of taking power themselves. Andrea Horwath's New Democrats should retain their role as third party in Queen's Park.

The likely outcome

The Liberals are projected to win between 42 and 55 seats, putting them just in range of a majority government (54 are needed), with between 35.4% and 40.6% of the popular vote. While this would be their fourth consecutive election victory, it could also be the least decisive of the four. The precise projection gives the Liberals 49 seats and 36.9% of the vote. That is little different from the 48 seats the party had at dissolution and the 37.7% the party took in 2011.

Final projection
The Progressive Conservatives are projected win between 33 and 44 seats with between 34.3% and 39% of the popular vote. This does make a minority victory by the PCs possible. The precise projection gives the party 36 seats and 35.8% of the popular, again little different from dissolution (37 seats) and their electoral performance in 2011.

The New Democrats are projected to win between 18 and 22 seats with between 20.4% and 23.8% of the popular vote. There is a chance, then, that the NDP could put up their best numbers since 1990. The precise projection gives them one more seat than they had at dissolution with 22, and slightly less of the vote than they earned in 2011 at 22.2%.

The Greens flirted with a seat for a period in the campaign, but in the end are projected to remain shutout of the legislature with between 2.9% and 5.1% of the vote. The precise projection gives them 4% support, which would represent their second best performance.

The range of plausible outcomes

With the polls at the end of the campaign - and this is something quite rare - showing greatly divergent results, it is especially worthwhile to look at the maximum and minimum projected ranges, encompassing 95% of likely outcomes. 

Projection ranges
When we stretch the projection to that extreme, we still get a likely Liberal, possible PC victory. The Liberals should be able to win between 29 and 68 seats, making a majority government or a return to Official Opposition status after more than a decade more than possible. Their vote range stretches from 34.3% to 47.2%.

The Progressive Conservatives could plausibly win between 25 and 60 seats, making a slim majority government possible for them. They should take between 32.2% and 45.4% of the vote.

The New Democrats do not seem to be in a position to move out of third place, with a maximum range of between nine and 25 seats, with between 18.4% and 25.8% of the vote. But some caution here: that maximum and minimum range does not even encompass all of the final polls, some of which had the NDP lower than 18.4% and higher than 25.8%. They are the wildcard in this election.

The Greens could take as little as 1.8% and as much as 6.3% of the vote,  but that does not put them in range of their first seat.

Regional breakdown

The Liberals are expected to finish first in the two most highly urbanized regions of the province, with the Progressive Conservatives placing first in the rest of Ontario.

Regional projections
In Toronto, the Liberals are projected to have between 44.1% and 50.5% support, enough to give them between 15 and 20 of the region's 22 seats. The PCs should finish second in the vote count with between 26.4% and 29.9%, but third in the seat count with between zero and three seats. The NDP, which has rallied in Toronto in the final stages of the campaign, should take between 20.6% and 24% of the vote and between two and four seats. The Greens are projected to take between 2.1% and 3.7% of the vote, their weakest region.

Regional projection tracker
In the 905 area code, which stretches from the Toronto-area suburbs through to Hamilton and Niagara Falls, the Liberals are projected to narrowly edge out the PCs with between 35.9% and 41.1% support. Their seat haul is projected to be between 16 and 18 seats. The PCs should take between 35.2% and 40% of the vote and win between eight and 11 seats. The NDP is projected to win five or six seats with between 19.5% and 22.7% support. The Greens should take between 2.6% and 4.6% of the vote. Support levels have been the most static in the 905 throughout the campaign.

The Progressive Conservatives have the most support in Eastern Ontario with between 40.1% and 45.5% of the vote, which should net them between seven and nine seats. The Liberals closed the gap in the last week of the campaign, and are projected to take between 35.7% and 40.9% of the vote, getting them between five and seven seats. The NDP is projected to remain seatless in the region with between 15.4% and 17.9% of the vote, while the Greens finish fourth with between 2.4% and 4.3% support.

Riding projections
In Southwestern Ontario, a relatively close three-way race that the PCs have led for most of the campaign, the Tories are expected to win between 12 and 14 seats with between 37.2% and 42.3% of the vote. The Liberals should take between 26.7% and 30.6% of the vote and two to four of the seats, with the NDP winning six seats with between 25.1% and 29.2% support. The Greens should take between 3.5% and 6.1% of the vote.

The closest three-way race of the entire campaign has been in Northern and Central Ontario. The PCs are projected to come out narrowly on top with between 31.8% and 36.1% of the vote and with six or seven seats, while the Liberals take between 31.3% and 35.9% of the vote and between four and six seats. The NDP is projected to win five or six seats with between 26.1% and 30.3% of the vote, while the Greens could put up their best numbers here with between 3.7% and 6.5% support.

The polls

Unlike the last two provincial campaigns that have taken place, in Quebec and Nova Scotia, the polls have been anything but consistent in Ontario. The last set of polls, at least among all eligible voters, were notably more consistent than earlier in the campaign, but by any other standards they were nevertheless quite divergent. It means that this projection is one of the least confident ones I have had to make, and there is a great deal of potential for a surprise tonight.

If we look at a mix of the final tallies that the pollsters will be judged against (their one-and-only numbers, or their estimations of likely turnout) we get a fair bit of agreement and disagreement. 

There is absolute consensus on the support the PCs will be able to capture: about 36%. All of the final polls put support for the party at between 35% and 37%. So on that score, at least, there is little mystery.

But that is not so for the Liberals and NDP. The governing party has been estimated to get as much as 42% of the vote or as little as 30%. That is the difference, of course, between majority government and Official Opposition.

Polling trends and intervals
For the New Democrats, the range is even wider: as high as 30% or as low as 17%. Here there is little consensus either, with polls landing everywhere between those highs and lows. And again, that makes a huge difference - perhaps not for the NDP, who would struggle to displace either the Liberals or PCs for second place even at 30% - but for the other parties. The PCs should hope for a high NDP number, as that will hurt the Liberals. A low NDP number, on the other hand, virtually assures a Liberal plurality, even if they find themselves short on the vote count.

The trends for the Liberals and PCs have been relatively clear and stable. The Liberals slowly inched up throughout the campaign, until taking a bit of a hit after the debate. The PCs dropped after initially leading, and up-ticked after the debate. The NDP, however, has been neither gaining nor dropping. The range of final outcomes, at least according to the polls, points to a disappointing campaign, a stellar breakthrough, and everything in between.

Why have the polls been so divergent? It has been a consistent trend in Ontario polling since Dalton McGuinty's resignation. Low engagement is undoubtedly a factor, as we all sit in fear of turnout dropping again from the record low of 48% in 2011. Part of it is, however, the increased variation added by the different turnout models. These are all designed differently and make different assumptions, whereas the polls of all eligible voters are based on the same assumptions and are done, for the most part, in similar ways. If we were only looking at eligible numbers in this campaign, we'd find the polls only slightly at odds.

How the leaders fared

Kathleen Wynne was the rookie leader in this campaign, as both Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath took their second kicks at the can. Based on what the polls have showed, Hudak and Horwath had worse campaigns than Wynne did.

This is because Wynne's numbers have hardly budged since the pre-campaign period. Her approval and favourability ratings remained generally stable, and she continued to lead on who would make the best premier. Of 20 polls that asked this question throughout the campaign, Wynne led in 17 of them, or 85%. Of the 38 voting intentions surveys completed in this campaign, by contrast, the Liberals led in only 61% of them. She clearly has the leadership edge, averaging 31% on who would make the best premier against 25% for Hudak and 21% for Horwath.

It has not been a bad campaign for Hudak, however. The June 9 survey from Forum put his approval rating at 30%, the highest Forum has recorded it to be since October 2012. His approval among PC supporters has also improved, from under 60% before the campaign to 64-66% at the mid-point and finally 77% at the end of it. After having difficulty with their own leader, Tories seem to have come to terms with him.

But Ontarians are still not enamoured. The Angus Reid poll had 60% calling the PC leader 'unappealing', with just 21% saying he was 'appealing'. Those are rather bad numbers.

The NDP was banking on Horwath's personal popularity to carry them through this campaign, but the gambit may not have worked. Horwath's numbers have taken a hit as the campaign dragged on. Her approval rating had been well over 40% before the campaign began, but dropped to 34% in the last poll from Forum. Her disapproval rating is now nearing 50%, after being in the mid-30s before the campaign. A similar drop in favourability has also been recorded by Abacus, though she scored highest (33%) on being an appealing leader in Angus Reid's poll.

Wynne is given an 85% chance of winning her riding of Don Valley West, with an estimated support of between 52% and 60%, against 31% to 36% for the PC candidate.

Hudak's chances of re-election in Niagara West-Glanbrook stand at a comfortable 89% chance, with between 48% and 55% against 24% to 28% for the Liberal candidate.

Horwath is the most secure at a 98% chance of victory in Hamilton Centre, with between 58% and 67% support against 17% to 19% for the Liberal candidate.

Green Party leader Mike Schreiner is expected to come up short in Guelph, where the Liberals are favoured. He is projected to take between 9% and 16% of the vote in the riding, placing fourth. I would not be surprised, however, if he does better than that.

Missing the forest for the trees?

In past campaigns, it has been easier to gauge the state of the race as the polls were in general agreement. It was clear in Quebec that the Liberals moved ahead at the mid-point, and that the CAQ was making inroads in the final days. In Nova Scotia, it was obvious that the Liberals were going to win and that the NDP was in a fight for second place. Even in British Columbia, despite the overall miss, there was no mistaking the gains the B.C. Liberals were making.

Ontario has been different. The polls have actually been quite stable - but only from the perspective of each individual pollster. For the most part, the portrait of the race that they painted in the first week was the same as it was in the last week. But that portrait differed from pollster to pollster, with some consistently showing a Liberal advantage, others a PC edge, and yet others a tie. This has made it very difficult to tell the story of the campaign.

The aggregate has been clearer, with early PC strength and a generally stable Liberal lead afterwards that was reduced following the debate. If the election result mirrors the current projection, that will likely be the safest 'story' that can be told of what happened in the 2014 Ontario provincial campaign.

But because of the very different results from the polls, there has been a great focus on this cacophony, blaming the pollsters for being unable to consistently track the voting intentions of a disengaged and disinterested electorate. Because of the very different final tallies - caused by the drive to get it right after past misses - one pollster or multiple ones will be wrong. Some will be right, though. 

In all likelihood, the ones that were wrong will get the most attention, and Ontario will be chalked up as another miss. We can add the "Premier Hudak/Wynne" taunt to those of Premiers Adrian Dix and Danielle Smith. Never-mind that the polls accurately named Philippe Couillard, Stephen McNeil, Pauline Marois, Brad Wall, Kathy Dunderdale, Dalton McGuinty, Greg Selinger, Robert Ghiz, and David Alward as incoming premiers since 2010. Those two misses are all that count, apparently.

Some in the media will relish the opportunity to jump on whatever misses occur tonight, but pollsters have a role to play as well. Those that turn out to be right tonight must be humble, those that miss must not hide. Those who do well should not laugh at those who don't, those who don't should not call those who have a better night lucky. All of that infighting in the public sphere does nothing to help the image of the industry, and tarnishes both those who gloat and those who make excuses.

But the story of the 2014 Ontario provincial election should not be, of course, about the polls. It should be about the voters. If turnout is very low, or the number of those who decline or spoil their ballots very high, parties should ask themselves what they are doing wrong. It is not just the responsibility of organizations like Elections Ontario to get out the vote, but the role of parties to give voters an option they can be enthusiastic about. 

If the polls have said anything about this campaign, it is that it is likely to be a very close one and that every vote matters. The pollsters have tried to do their job to capture and report your opinions. Now it is up to you.