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VIBERT: Is Wynne’s Hail Mary a pass or a punt?

Ontario’s Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne needs to complete a Hail Mary pass just to salvage party status in the provincial legislature, but the play she called seems as likely to send remaining Liberal voters to the exits early.

In a move that’s unusual for a bunch of good reasons, Wynne conceded defeat about 135 hours before the polls close on Thursday night. Odds are that Ontario’s next government will be Conservative, despite Ontarians deep and justifiable apprehension about Doug Ford as their premier.

The Conservatives and NDP are in a virtual tie in recent polls – each at about 37 per cent of voter support – but the Tory vote is distributed more efficiently to produce seats.

NDP voters are densely concentrated and the party will win some Toronto seats by huge margins, but not likely enough of them to form the government, unless Ford fear runs rampant in the final few days.

Wynne’s Saturday surprise – she admitted that her faint hope of re-election is gone – will be remembered either as a refreshingly honest gambit that salvaged something, or as a self-destructive mistake that sealed the most ignominious end imaginable to the Ontario Liberals’ 15-year run as government, the last five with Wynne in the premier’s seat.

Even as she threw in the towel, Wynne urged Ontarians to vote Liberal and deliver enough seats to the party to deny either of the two “extremes” a majority.  That scenario would give her Liberals the balance of power, and that self-evident self-interest was immediately underscored by NDP leader Andrea Horwath and the Twittersphere.

Wynne’s Liberals have been in decline since the campaign began in earnest a month ago, sliding from near 30 per cent to around 20.

Conservative support slipped too, coincidental with Ontarians taking a hard look at Ford, but the Tories had room to fall. The party had been tracking in the mid-40 per cent range for months, even when former leader Patrick Brown was forced to resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct. That resignation opened the door to Doug Ford – the older and apparently more stable brother of ex-TO mayor Rob – who eked out a razor-thin win over MPP Christine Elliott, widow of former federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, for the party leadership. 

Wynne’s Liberals entered the campaign with 55 of the 107 seats in the Ontario legislature, but voters in Canada’s largest province have clearly had enough of both Wynne and her Liberals and polls suggest the party needs some lucky breaks to hold the eight seats required to retain party status.

Hence the Hail Mary. 

Try to put yourself in the shoes of an Ontario Liberal voter today. Admittedly, the shoes are uncomfortable, but after your leader confirms your worst fears, how do you react? If you are all in with Kathleen Wynne you’ll do her bidding, vote Liberal and hope.

But, if you are motivated by anything other than loyalty to leader and party your response is likely to be quite different. Voters driven by self-interest, fear, loathing and a myriad of other factors are assessing their options.

To stop Ford, or to beat the NDP does it make more sense to cast your vote for the party with a chance to win and avert your most feared or hated outcome, or roll the dice with Wynne’s minority bet?

And that promise you made to work election day and drive Liberals to vote, well, what’s the point?  Maybe go down and see if the NDP need an extra hand on June 7th.

Those who were going to go down with the ship no matter what will stay with Wynne and her Grits. A few others who admire her pluck and, fearing both the Ford and NDP option, will find sense in her appeal for a minority.

But can a last-ditch plea to vote strategically in favour of an unpopular leader firm up soft support or convince undecided voters to back her?

Stranger things have happened and if you need an expected result, maybe it makes sense to try an unexpected tactic. That Wynne did.

With Donald Trump in the White House and political polling suspect in the age of altered reality, the ball is in the air, but was it a pass or a punt?

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.

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