With the June 7th vote fast approaching, there was much at stake for the final leaders’ debate held last night. For each leader, it was the last time they would be able to make a direct appeal to voters—especially those who hadn’t yet made up their minds.
NDP leader Andrea Horwath faced tough questions from both the Premier and Conservative leader Doug Ford as the perceived front-runner in the campaign. Ms. Horwath’s challenge in the debate—as the candidate with momentum—was to withstand aggressive attacks from her opponents while getting out her change message. She largely did a good job in this, relating questions back to voters and the NDP’s plans to make life better for people. Her frequent interventions and interruptions may have put off some viewers, along with her refusal to pull a controversial candidate for intemperate remarks. Overall she stood her ground and didn’t let her opponents talk over her—projecting an image of someone who’s capable of leading.
The Premier delivered a strong performance in the debate. This wasn’t surprising—she is an experienced politician and debater and some would argue at her best when she has her back against the wall. The Premier kicked off with a “sorry/not sorry” message intended to acknowledge her resounding lack of popularity while remaining resolute about changes implemented on her watch. She was articulate, clear and concise and spoke well to the differences between the parties. Although she spent a lot of time on the defensive—inevitable for an incumbent—overall her performance was solid. The Premier’s question to Andrea Horwath about back-to-work legislation was interesting. The Premier used the question to paint the NDP leader as being ideologically-driven in having ruled out the use of such legislation even when all else fails. It was a surprising moment, given that union support of the Liberals in elections past has been an important part of the party’s coalition of support. Overall, hers was a solid performance that could well make her base think twice before switching to the NDP. Whether it was enough to shift anyone’s ballot choice from Horwath vs. Ford remains to be seen.
Conservative leader Doug Ford was positioned at the middle podium in the debate—at times being hit from both sides by his opponents. He adopted a folksy tone throughout, repeatedly referring to “my friends” in communicating the Conservative approach to lowering taxes and reducing the size of government. Mr. Ford used his airtime to tell a clear, straightforward story and speak quite effectively to voters looking for change. He largely turned his attention away from the Premier, repeatedly referring to how things would be “10 times worse” under an NDP government, citing the concerns of hundreds of businesses. Not putting out a platform with full costing played into his opponents’ hands, allowing a series of comments about “where will the cuts come from” to mostly go unanswered. He did say that no one would lose their job. Mr. Ford stuck close to his narrative and spent a lot of time raising questions about what an NDP government would look like.
In the end, each leader largely accomplished what they set out to do: Doug Ford stayed above the fray and focused his message on expanding his base of voters looking for change; Andrea Horwath held her own as the perceived front-runner; and the Premier made an emotional appeal to viewers to take a closer look at her accomplishments. What this translates into on election day remains to be seen—but we’ll be watching the polls closely over the remaining days.