Where the Ontario election race will be run — and won

Possibly to the chagrin of the rest of Ontario, much of the provincial election race will be run — and won — in and around Toronto.

You can expect to see the leaders of the three major parties spend the bulk of their time in and around the provincial capital, say pollsters, and for good reason: the Greater Toronto Area, plus the Hamilton region, make up more than half of the 124 seats up for grabs on June 2.

“They’re all going to be spending a lot of time in the GTA,” said Éric Grenier, the polls analyst at TheWrit.ca, who’s running the Ontario poll tracker for CBC News. “It is really going to be the place that decides the election, as it always is.”

But the different parties will likely take different approaches to the region.

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford didn’t spend too much time campaigning in downtown Toronto in 2018, and likely won’t this time around, either.

Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford swept to power by winning ridings in Toronto suburbs and the surrounding 905 communities. The PCs need to hold onto those seats. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

The PCs marched to a majority last time around by holding onto most rural ridings (the party’s traditional stronghold) while also scooping up seats in Toronto’s inner-suburbs and the surrounding 905 area.

“They’re already always going to struggle in urban areas — so if they’re not winning the suburbs, they can’t win the seats that they add to their rural base to form a government,” said Grenier. “So for the PCs, I think that’s largely where they’re going to be sticking around.”

That doesn’t mean the New Democrats and the Liberals will cede that ground without a fight.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca both spent much of the first couple days of their respective campaigns in the cities that ring Toronto.

And the NDP will be working to hold onto their seats in Brampton, the rapidly growing city that was hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, something that has made health care a top priority in the election for many voters there.

The NDP and Liberals will be in a fierce battle for the many seats in downtown Toronto — and even the Greens may be in the running for a riding in the core, as Leader Michael Schneiner hopes to add at least a second MPP to Queen’s Park.

In the 2018 election, the NDP swept the seats in the core of the provincial capital — riding the Liberals are hoping to win back this time.

Both parties will spend the first couple of weeks fighting a “progressive primary” of sorts in search of the anti-Ford, progressive vote, said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also needs to hold onto the seats her party picked up in 2018. In the last election, she benefitted from an anyone-but-Ford sentiment from progressive-minded voters. It’s unclear that sentiment exists this time around. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Last time around, the NDP benefited from receiving the anyone-but-Ford vote from Ontarians hoping to prevent a PC government. That sort of strategic voting is considered to have helped the NDP win so many downtown Toronto seats, among other ridings, such as Ottawa Centre, in 2018.

But that anti-Ford sentiment doesn’t exist this time around, at least to the same extent as it did for former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne, pollsters say.

According to Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research, “there’s a lot of people that don’t particularly approve of Ford,” but are still willing to vote for the PC party, which has a firm lead in the polls at this early stage in the campaign.

Graves said the “visceral contempt” that dogged Wynne in 2018, “is not a factor at this time in this election. Ford doesn’t suffer from that.”

The Ontario Liberal Party was decimated in the 2018 election. Relatively unknown leader Steven Del Duca needs to make a good first impression on voters, many of whom will be seeing and hearing him for the first time. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Other areas to watch

Even though the Toronto area is where the main action will be, that’s not to say there aren’t other interesting races elsewhere in the province.

Parts of northern and southwestern Ontario may also see some action, particularly from the NDP, who have held the majority of seats in these regions for several terms, and the PCs. Pollsters say that workers in those riding can swing between the New Democrats, with whom they align on labor issues, and the Progressive Conservatives who tend to reflect their social values.

“It’s more about who people feel they can connect with,” said Bricker, of Ipsos, suggesting that Ford could have the advantage there.

For Horwath, said Grenier, it might mean forgoing ridings where the NDP isn’t very competitive to focus on hanging onto seats her party already holds.

Here are just a few of the areas outside of Toronto to keep an eye on:

Peterborough-Kawartha: This riding has been a bellwether since 1977, so it’s always one to watch for hints of where the political winds are blowing. Del Duca had already dropped in on Wednesday.

Hamilton East-Stoney Creek: Four of the five ridings in and around Hamilton — NDP leader Horwath’s hometown — are solidly New Democrat orange. However, incumbent Paul Miller was kicked out of the party because of a “pattern of troubling behaviour.” Now, several high-profile candidates are running in the riding, including a recipient of the Order of Hamilton, a city councilor and a former CFL player.

London North Centre: Although the NDP won this riding solidly in 2018, it was largely due to disaffected Liberal voters in riding, which had been previously held by prominent Liberal cabinet minister Deb Matthews for 15 years. Now, the PCs are eyeing this riding as one they can pick up, so the area could see some leader visits.

Ottawa West-Nepean: The riding saw the tightest race of the 2018 election. It had been a Liberal stronghold for 15 years until 2018, when the PC candidate beat the New Democrat one by 175 votes. The Liberals are looking to take the seat back, while the New Democrats are vying to win it for the first time ever.

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