The most baffling miscalculations made by each of Ontario’s parties

Political parties invest great amounts of time and energy into preparing for election campaigns – far more, generally, than the media covering them. For all that we’re constantly questioning their strategic decisions, an awful lot of thought and research goes into most of them, and even if they don’t pan out there’s usually a good explanation behind them.

Still, this election has contained its share of mysteries when it comes to what the parties were thinking. Here’s a quick look at what was, to these eyes, the most baffling miscalculation by each party.

The Liberals’ debate prep

Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne takes part in the Ontario provincial leaders debate in Toronto, Tuesday June 3, 2014. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne takes part in the Ontario provincial leaders debate in Toronto, Tuesday June 3, 2014. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Yes, it was bad luck for Kathleen Wynne that the very first topic in her first leaders’ debate – before she’d had a chance to let her nerves settle – was the gas-plants scandal. But that still doesn’t explain why she didn’t have a better plan for the inevitable questions on that subject than to repeatedly apologize while uncomfortably staring straight ahead as the other leaders berated her, then make an awkward and unsuccessful attempt to change the channel to Tim Hudak’s math problems.

Ms. Wynne was being prepped for the debate dating back to last year, so it’s not as though no thought went into this. One theory offered by some Liberal insiders is that, somewhat in keeping with the way their party has made both political and policy decisions since Ms. Wynne took over, there were a lot of people in the room during those sessions – and enough conflicting advice that she didn’t have a clear idea of what she was supposed to do.

Another explanation also floating around is that while they expected Mr. Hudak to be tough on her, the Liberals failed to adjust to the aggressive persona Andrea Horwath had taken on by the time the debate happened. Instead, by this account, Ms. Wynne was prepared for the folksier version of the NDP Leader from the 2011 campaign, and left flummoxed by the attack from both sides.

Or maybe the prep just didn’t take as it should have, with Ms. Wynne’s nervousness getting the better of her. Whatever happened, if the Liberals lose on Thursday, they’ll have cause to look back on the debate with some regret.

The Tories’ hard sell of 100,000 job cuts

Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak shares a laugh with workers at Automatic Coating Limited in Toronto on Tuesday, May 6, 2014.  (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak shares a laugh with workers at Automatic Coating Limited in Toronto on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The more obvious choice for a Progressive Conservative mystery in this campaign might be how Mr. Hudak’s policy advisers managed to badly botch the math behind his pledge to create a million new jobs, causing him no shortage of embarrassment. Chalk that one up to sloppiness, albeit of the fairly remarkable variety. What’s even more confusing is how the Tories rolled out their plan to cut 100,000 jobs from the broader public sector.

When they announced that pledge, a few days in, it seemed obviously intended as something to seize the electorate’s attention and become the talk of the campaign. If it wasn’t, then surely Mr. Hudak would have soft-sold it as relying largely on attrition rather than giving the impression that it involved firing a lot of people.

But by the accounts of many within their party, the Tories were genuinely caught off guard by how much the proposed cuts overshadowed other policies they rolled out in the days that followed, and the extent to which it gave their opponents something to rally against. So in subsequent the weeks, Mr. Hudak did start talking more about attrition – but only after the other parties had reasonably been able to characterize his proposal as mass layoffs.

Prior to the debate, several PC sources have said, there was starting to be a degree of finger-pointing within their party about both the million-jobs math and the jobs-cuts roll-out. A better mood set in because of the perceived momentum swing in their favour, which seemingly had much to do with the focus shifting to Liberal scandals. But there will again be plenty of second-guessing if the motivated centre-left keeps them from office.

The NDP’s slow start

Andrea Horwath speaks at a campaign stop in Toronto on May 7. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Andrea Horwath speaks at a campaign stop in Toronto on May 7. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Frankly, almost the entire NDP campaign has been baffling. While there have been occasional signs of what could have worked – Ms. Horwath is a more confident performer than she was in 2011, and when anyone has actually seen them their ads have been pretty good – it remains unclear why the New Democrats forced an election for which they lacked both a policy agenda and enough money to compete with the other parties.

What is especially confusing, though, is why Ms. Horwath was so unprepared for the campaign’s first week. In the run-up to the May 2 provincial budget, neither of the other parties could be certain how the New Democrats would respond. But in retrospect, considering that their rejection of that left-leaning budget clearly had little to do with its contents, the New Democrats should have known well before it was presented what they were going to do. And if they had bluffed publicly about weighing their options while making preparations behind the scenes, they might have run the smoothest campaign out of the gate.

Instead, the New Democrats looked more surprised than anyone by the government falling. It took them the longest to get their logistics sorted out, and more important they lacked a compelling explanation for why they had decided to bring the Liberals down. This was probably the time to make the strongest possible argument about Liberal corruption, as Ms. Horwath tried to do much later; instead she stumbled through a less-than-compelling case about liking Ms. Wynne’s promises but not trusting her to deliver on them.

As a result, Ms. Horwath squandered the spotlight that was on her in those first days. Before long, with the other leaders campaigning more strongly, the narrative of a two-way race had taken hold – one the New Democrats were never able to shake in the weeks that followed.

Where do voters get their politics news? TV and the Internet, mostly

In this new digital age, how do you reach voters? Increasingly, parties need to go online. But for now TV is still king.

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Abacus conducted the survey by talking to 2,002 Canadians over the age of 18 through a mix of online panels and live telephone interviews. The data were demographically weighted in line with the general population, and the margin of error is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The poll was conducted in January and February of this year.

Ask The Globe: Do we, as PM Harper has stated, have the cleanest electricity grid in Canada?

For the duration of the election, The Globe is answering your questions – from fact-checking leaders’ statements to digging deep into policies and promises. Have a question? Tweet it with #AskTheGlobe

Globe reader Greg Bennett asks: Do we, as PM Harper has stated, have the cleanest electricity grid in Canada?

Energy reporter Shawn McCarthy says yes – it’s true. But the answer is a little more complicated:

Conservatives’ attacks on Mulcair not too effective, survey suggests

As explained in today’s story, new survey data from Innovative Research Group suggests the Liberals are having some success with advertising rebutting Conservative attacks against Justin Trudeau. But of course, they wouldn’t need to do so if those attacks hadn’t been effective in branding the Liberal Leader as a “not ready” lightweight to begin with.

To the much more limited extent that the Tories are going after NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, it appears they’re struggling to find an angle that’s similarly effective.

In the same early-August  survey in which it found the Liberals’ new ad has a significant impact on those who see it, the polling company also tested a pair of anti-Mulcair Conservative ads. Both use the same “job interview” format as the ones against Mr. Trudeau, but the attempts to cast Mr. Mulcair as an opportunistic career politician seemed to have more limited effect.

In fact, when Innovative Research screened the first of those spots (above) – asking respondents a series of questions both before and after they saw it – it found no statistically significant impact on either voting intentions or impressions of Mr. Mulcair relative to the other party leaders.

The second ad, which is slightly more focused on alleging Mr. Mulcair has wasted taxpayers’ money and less so on using his longevity in politics and his past as a (Quebec) Liberal to suggest he’s an opportunist, proved somewhat more effective. Among respondents who hadn’t seen it before, support for the NDP went down by five percentage points after they saw it, although it’s not clear whether that went to the Tories or the Liberals. And the share of respondents who chose Mr. Mulcair as the leader who most “cares about people like me” went down by seven points.

While significant, neither of those hits is huge when an ad is viewed in isolation. And on other perceptions of leaders’ qualities, such as competence and who cares most about the middle class, there was again no clear impact.

Considering how little these two ads have been airing so far, it’s possible the Tories aren’t using their best stuff against the NDP yet. But it’s worth remembering that, even with Mr. Trudeau, they spent a while running spots that didn’t really work before they hit their target. If they decide before this campaign is over to make Mr. Mulcair their main target, they’ll have a much smaller window to get it right.

(Full methodology for Innovative Research’s surveys are available from its website.)