LILLEY: Ontario Liberals take slight lead over Ford, voters in flux before election

On the question of who would make the best premier, 29% of voters chose Ford in a new poll

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It’s the kind of poll that will put a spring in the step of the Liberals while sending shockwaves through the PC Party HQ.

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The latest poll on Ontario politics gives Steven Del Duca and the Liberals a slight lead over Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives.

Innovative Research Group found that if an election were held today, 36% of decided voters would back Del Duca and the Liberals compared to 35% for Ford and the PC Party. Just 22% would back Andrea Horwath and the NDP, while 5% would support Mike Schreiner and the Greens and 2% would support another party.

With less than six months until voting day, these are not the kinds of numbers Premier Doug Ford and his team were hoping for and much of the decline they are seeing can be attributed to their handling of the latest wave of the pandemic.

Greg Lyle, president of Innovative, said Ford’s government was seen as not acting swiftly enough to bring in restrictions after Christmas to then going too far after New Year’s.

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“It went from more Ontarians saying it was too loose to more Ontarians saying it was too tight,” Lyle said.

While 42% of Ontario voters say they approve of the government’s overall performance, enough support for a majority government, that support drops to just 32% when it comes to how the Ford government has handled COVID-19. The poll shows that Ford is maintaining support among voters who Innovative classifies as “Core PC” and “Soft PC” but losing support among the group described as “Business Liberals.”

Del Duca and his team will surely take this poll as a sign they are turning things around. The former Wynne-era cabinet minister took over the leadership of his party about 10 days before the province entered the first lockdown in March 2020 and they have struggled to raise funds and improve the leader’s name recognition.

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While Del Duca’s personal brand remains weak — 49% of voters either have a neutral view of him or have not heard of him — the Ontario Liberal brand remains strong and is boosting his fortunes.

When it comes to who the public likes as a leader, though, that is a mixed bag and shows that while the Liberals have a slight edge within the margin of error, the next several months of campaigning will matter greatly.

Ford has the highest favourable ratings of all the leaders at 28% and the highest unfavourable at 47%. Horwath’s favourable rating sits at 27% while her unfavourable rating is at 36%. For Del Duca, just 18% of voters have a favourable rating for him, too low to make an impact, but just 24% have an unfavourable view, meaning he has room to grow.

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On the question of who would make the best premier, 29% of voters chose Ford, with Horwath well back at 18% and Del Duca at 14%.

Lyle said that Ford’s strategic advantage right now is leadership, an area where he beats Horwath and Del Duca, and while missteps on handling the pandemic can cost him, his ability to admit mistakes has worked in his favour before.

“When Ford makes a mistake he says he’s sorry — people like that,” Lyle said.

Whether that will work this time or he has apologized one too many times remains to be seen.

Bottom line, there is a race in Ontario now as we head towards election day on June 2 and how each party and leader reacts to the issues from COVID to the economy will determine the outcome.

The poll was conducted using INNOVATIVE’s Canada 20/20 national research panel with additional respondents from Dynata, a leading provider of online sample. A total of 516 adult voters were surveyed between Jan. 6 and Jan. 11. There is no margin of error provided for this poll.

blilley@postmedia.com

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