Heading into the May 2 federal election, the Liberal stronghold on two key midtown ridings was as solid as ever, while two others were beginning to show the weakening pundits have described as part of the dynamic that gave rise to Ford Nation.
So confident were Liberals in St. Paul’s and Toronto Centre, that incumbent MPs Carolyn Bennett and Bob Rae, respectively, were freed up to join the party’s crack auxiliary team, which was parachuted in to select ridings across Canada to lend the weight of their names to Liberal campaigns.
In Don Valley West, on the other hand, Rob Oliphant had to keep looking over his shoulder to check the whereabouts of Conservative challenger John Carmichael, in spite of the fact the riding has been Liberal for almost 20 years. And in Eglinton-Lawrence, longtime MP Joe Volpe was considered the most vulnerable of all midtown Liberals, with Conservative Joe Oliver breathing down his neck for the second consecutive election.
Sandie Benitah takes a look behind the scenes to pinpoint reasons for this shift in dynamics.
The Liberals may have painted Toronto red in recent federal and provincial elections, but polls have shown the fortress is weakening — even in the city’s midtown ridings.
The political shift started during last fall’s municipal mayoral campaign.
Ward 15 Eglinton-Lawrence and both Don Valley wards voted for Rob Ford, a man who flaunted a conservative approach to spending and an iron fist for anyone who dared go against his philosophy.
And in this new federal election, the tide seems to be heading in the same direction.
Pundits began pointing early to Eglinton-Lawrence and Don Valley West as ridings that could change hands from the Liberal Party to the Conservative Party of Canada.
Nik Nanos, a Canadian pollster who kept track of voter support throughout the election campaign, says Ford’s message of fiscal responsibility proved to be a popular platform.
“Money is a hot-button issue,” he told Toronto Today. “The Conservatives have a similar message of managing tax dollars.”
Nanos, who heads up polling firm Nanos Research, said that message will resonate even with the most Tory-wary voter.
“A likely Conservative strategy will be them saying, ‘You don’t have to like us, but we’re good for the economy.’”
But in midtown ridings, the economy isn’t the only issue that could decide a close race.
In Eglinton-Lawrence, the main challenge appears to be the support of minority communities. The ethnic vote was once considered a cinch for Liberals, but in recent years many communities have said the Conservative message has resonated with them.
Joe Volpe, who has represented Eglinton-Lawrence as Liberal MP since 1988, faced a tough fight in 2008. He won against his Conservative opponent Joe Oliver, but by a little more than 2,000 votes, with 44 percent.
Oliver ran again this time with a goal of eliminating that gap. He had been out in earnest, and had knocked on more than 35,000 doors before the campaign had reached its halfway point.
“This riding is accessible (to the Tories) and is on the target list,” Nanos said.
Volpe said he was taking nothing for granted.
“I go into every campaign worried,” Volpe said in a telephone interview. “I’m never any less or any more worried.
“I do what I have to do.”
Nonetheless, Volpe discounted the Conservatives’ support in the riding and said the issue during the previous election had more to do with voter apathy than waning support.
He said voters chose to stay at home instead of turn out and vote. This time, his focus was on convincing his supporters to turn out.
“I’m hearing at the door that people are in a voting mood,” he said, well into the campaign.
As far as keeping the ethnic vote, Volpe insists his record of supporting the Jewish and Italian communities — both prevalent groups in his riding — far outshine Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s record.
“He makes a good speech but there’s no action,” Volpe said.
He called out the Harper government for selling weapons to several countries in the Middle East. He also pointed out that the Conservatives lost their bid for a seat on the UN Security Council precisely when Israel needed a strong voice at the table.
“Anyone who stops to take a look is realizing reality is a lot different,” he said.
Aside from the ethnic vote, the Liberals must also concern themselves with the political mood of the day, particularly in bellwether ridings like Don Valley West.
The riding’s constituency has historically voted in step with the national trend. During the 1980s, when Conservative leader Brian Mulroney ruled the House, the riding was represented by a Tory MP.
Liberal MP Rob Oliphant has been in office for only one term, after winning a close race with Conservative rival John Carmichael. Oliphant won by 2,660 — more than 44 percent of the vote.
Carmichael came back for a rematch, hoping to take advantage of the Conservatives’ increasing popularity.
Dan Robertson, a top campaign strategist for the Conservatives, acknowledges that the party is more competitive in Toronto this time around.
Though he refused to discuss campaign strategies, he said candidates were being diligent, knocking on doors and talking to as many voters as they could.
“We are certainly going to make a case as persuasively as we can,” he said during a sit-down chat.
He said the Liberals have perhaps been too comfortable with Toronto and the ethnic communities’ support. Because of that, he said, the Liberals under leader Michael Ignatieff have lost sight of what’s important to the city.
“The Liberals have taken Toronto for granted. We saw the consequences of that most recently in Vaughan.”
Julian Fantino ended a 22-year Liberal reign in Vaughan, and vaulted into Harper’s cabinet, with a by-election win in November.
Robertson pointed to the gas tax and infrastructure projects as signs of Conservative commitments to Toronto.
“The Conservative government has made a lot of investments that have been good for cities and Toronto,” he said. “They’re important stimulus projects for job growth and it has laid an important groundwork for future growth.”
The Liberals agree that transportation is a key issue, especially in midtown Toronto where cars far prevail over public transportation.
Local roadways in Don Valley West are often used as alternative routes for people who are looking to get downtown by car.
In Eglinton-Lawrence, a new housing project around Yorkdale mall is expected to bring 50,000 new people to the area. That, coupled with the mall’s new renovation project, is expected to add to the existing traffic congestion on local streets and the Hwy. 401 strip across midtown.
Volpe has been actively speaking out against this project, making a personal deputation at North York Community Council on behalf of his constituents.
While the Tories headed into the May 2 election certainly optimistic their contributions through the years would help them make gains in Toronto, many wondered whether the Ford Factor would give them the competitive edge needed.
Mayor Ford’s followers have a reputation of being relentless in their support. Most recently, Ford threatened to unleash his so-called Ford Nation on Ontario’s Liberal government in the next provincial election if the city did not receive more funds.
While there were no new funds for Toronto in the provincial budget, Premier Dalton McGuinty did manage to ward off Ford Nation by announcing a short time afterwards a new $12.6 billion transit plan for the city.
Nonetheless, Warren Kinsella, a political commentator and chief strategist for McGuinty, said the Ford phenomenon is likely a thing of the past.
“I think the whole Ford Nation thing was overblown,” he said in a telephone interview. “He didn’t come up with a cure for cancer.”
Ford’s success, he said, was due more to chief rival George Smitherman having run “a lousy campaign.”
Furthermore, Kinsella said, people were voting against outgoing mayor David Miller rather than in support of Ford.
In fact, Ford’s success has probably helped Liberals like Volpe, as candidates can now go door-to-door and promise that the interests of Liberal voters in Toronto can still have a voice, Kinsella said.
“Ford has set up a difficult position for both (Ontario PC Leader) Tim Hudak and Harper,” he said.
Besides, said Kinsella, while the Conservatives may have the Ford Factor, Toronto Liberals have the incumbent factor.
“The Liberals’ advantage in Toronto is that they are all pretty good constituency MPs,” he said. “That’s what happens when you’re in opposition: there’s no largesse to focus on, so they focus on the riding.
“Plus, they have brand value.”
Aside from that, Ignatieff also has a sound economic plan for families that he revealed in the updated version of the Red Book — the Liberal election tome.
As well, the Liberals have a record of running a surplus while they were in government, as opposed to the structural deficit Harper’s Conservatives were facing at the time Parliament was dissolved.
Kinsella said he can’t fathom why Ignatieff was not talking to voters about that.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “It’s low-hanging fruit for all of them.
“It’s the issue people want to hear about.”
The data shows that Liberals have room to grow if they capitalize on these opportunities, particularly if voters begin to fear the possibility of a majority government.
During the 2008 election, the Conservatives started out strong in the polls and then, as they neared majority territory, voters backed off, opting to give them a minority government instead.
However, support in Ontario — a key battleground — has been favourable to the Tories this time.
“Historically, Ontario has been very good to the Liberals, so even for the Conservatives to be in a statistical tie is considered pretty good for the Tories,” Nanos said.
Nonetheless, Toronto would need to play a key part if the Conservatives were to attain a majority government, the pollster said.
“The Conservatives need the Liberals to make a mistake,” he said. “Historically, Toronto is a Liberal fortress.
“A key signal is when Conservatives become more competitive in Toronto. If they’re picking up seats, it’s indicative that they’re picking up a majority.”
A majority Conservative government with new seats in Toronto could be bad news for the provincial Tories, who are looking to bump the Liberals from power.
“If the federal Conservatives do pick up some seats in Toronto, it will motivate provincial Tories,” Nanos said. “But it’s highly unusual for all three levels of government to align with one party.
“Torontonians like to have a healthy tension between levels of government.”
In fact, the last time the Conservatives held both Ontario and Ottawa was for about a year in 1984, when Brian Mulroney became prime minister during the reign of Premier Bill Davis. At that time, the mayor of Toronto was Art Eggleton, who later went on to become a Liberal cabinet minister.
Provincially, the Liberals have had even greater success in Toronto than they have federally. The Conservatives do not hold a single provincial seat.
A National Post/Forum Research post that came out in early March showed that McGuinty’s hold on the country’s largest city, though, may be slipping.
The poll of 1,012 Torontonians showed the two parties in a statistical dead heat. Thirty-six percent of decided voters said they’d choose Liberals compared to 32 percent who picked the Tories.
The survey’s margin of error was listed as 3.1 percentage points (plus or minus,) 19 times out of 20.
Ontario Conservatives have already tried to lure big-name candidates. In Eglinton-Lawrence, former mayoralty candidate Rocco Rossi has already thrown his name on the ballot as the Conservative challenger to long-time incumbent Mike Colle.
A bigger threat to the provincial Liberals might be the New Democratic Party rather than the Conservatives. While the NDP don’t have much of a footing in midtown Toronto, they are the party to beat in the southern ridings.
Even in the federal race, the Liberals competed hard against the NDP.
Early in the campaign, Ignatieff made sure to walk through Chinatown, the long-time stomping grounds of popular NDP incumbent Olivia Chow — who is also the wife of party leader Jack Layton.
He visited the riding with Christine Innes, who lost to Chow by more than 3,400 votes in 2008.
“The Liberals are going after typical NDP votes,” Nanos said. “They’ll run on voters’ fear of a Conservative majority.
“Voters like Jack, but strategically (if they don’t want a majority Conservative government) they know it’s better to vote Liberal.”
What voters care about
At the end of the day, despite the party politics and political rhetoric, constituents will vote on the issues that hit close to home.
Several Nanos Research polls show health care continues to be a top issue across the country, though jobs and the economy continue to be foremost in people’s minds. In midtown Toronto, voters are curious about the government’s plan for efficient transportation, a robust economy, good schools and crime-fighting measures.
Nonetheless, local candidates like Volpe and Oliver continue to push the bigger message of their respective parties. Yet polls have shown talks of a coalition government and the Conservatives’ contempt charges had little impact on voters heading into the election.
“I don’t think the average voter cares (about the contempt charge),” Kinsella noted. “They think we’re all morally compromised.
“Families, pocketbooks … people are receptive of that message.”
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