Leaders’ Tour Stops

Where the leaders visit can tell us a lot about each party’s strategy. These events are intended to generate positive local media coverage and energize grassroots supporters. With only four weeks to campaign and 124 ridings across the province, leaders can’t possibly be everywhere; rather, they concentrate their appearances where they will have the most impact – ridings they think they can win, or ridings they’re afraid they will lose. In short: the battlegrounds.

Over the past several weeks Hill+Knowlton Strategies (H+K) has kept close tabs on the leaders’ movements. Using Doug Ford, Andrea Horwath and Kathleen Wynne’s public itineraries, along with riding boundary information freely available from Elections Ontario, we have created a map that plots out every public appearance the three major parties’ leaders have made since the campaign formally began on May 9th. This map shows the battlegrounds at a glance:

What does this all mean?

It can be tempting for leaders to stay in the warm embrace of Toronto and the 905. With so many ridings so close together and not far from traditional media HQs, there seems to be more bang for buck in this area. And, indeed, in the 2014 election, where fewer ridings changed hands and most of those were in a band around the city, we did see the leaders mostly stay put.

This time, however, with Doug Ford’s idiosyncratic appeal, the Liberals’ stunning collapse, and the NDP’s rapid ascent, ridings are in play across the entire province. Trips outside of Toronto can generate headlines in hometown newspapers – and people in smaller towns and cities tend to rely more on a single local paper than media-spoiled Torontonians. Looking at the leaders’ tours reveals where the biggest gains and losses are to be made, in this case concentrated in downtown Toronto, the west GTA, and southwestern Ontario.

Ontario NDP

With that being said, and despite the importance of the 905 ridings in this election, they don’t seem to be the major preoccupation of the NDP. Rather, judging from their leader’s tour, their strategy concentrates on sweeping friendly areas, like southwestern and northern Ontario, flipping seats in downtown Toronto and the inner suburbs, and electing just enough MPPs in the GTA to give them the most seats. They have put their leader out there as much as possible, especially as they’ve gained momentum; while Horwath and the Premier have done almost exactly the same number of events over the course of the entire campaign, in its final two weeks Horwath made nearly 50% more public appearances than Wynne.

The NDP have put the well-liked Horwath in settings that allow her to interact directly with voters and volunteers like cafés and bakeries, campaign offices and local shops. As the party’s polling numbers ticked up, there appeared to be a deliberate shift in the campaign; not only did Horwath take on more events, but most of them were in Liberal and PC ridings, particularly in southwestern communities like Woodstock and Chatham, where her appearances could have more impact. On the other hand, Horwath mostly avoided eastern Ontario, where the NDP only hope to pick up a few seats.

Ontario Liberal Party

The Liberals were in a different position than the other two parties from day one. Even putting the polls aside, entering the election as a majority government put them on defense, with more territory they to lose than win. For the first two weeks the leader’s tour followed the usual playbook with visits to Liberal ridings throughout Toronto and the GTA and excursions to friendly districts farther afield, including Ottawa, the north and the southwest. However, like the NDP, the campaign seemed to shift gears about halfway through, and from May 24th onward the Premier rarely left the Liberals’ Toronto stronghold.

Wynne tended to do fewer events than Horwath that put her up close with voters – a missed opportunity, perhaps, because she is an expert retail politician. Instead, and especially through its first half, the campaign leveraged her position as Premier to give her speaking opportunities at cultural and religious events throughout the west GTA, revealing a strategy to activate key ethnic groups to support Liberal candidates in this key region. Notable has been Wynne’s absence from battleground ridings with popular incumbents like Steven Del Duca and Jim Bradley; it was likely for MPPs like these that she announced her de facto concession nearly a week before election day.

Ontario PCs

From the beginning the PCs have run a front-runner’s campaign, and that doesn’t seem to have changed even as they moved into a tight race with the NDP. Doug Ford has done fewer public events than either of the other party leaders, often only one or two a day when the others were doing three or four. This makes sense; when your party is best-positioned to win the election, you quickly adopt the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm. When leading there may be more downside, in hard media questions or possible gaffes, than upside to putting the leader out there. Given Ford’s sometimes difficult relationship with the news media there may be more reason to reduce his public appearances. This might also help explain why, more than the other leaders, he’s often held events in safe seats for his party.

Ford’s events have tended to focus less on direct voter contact and more on his power to motivate crowds. Accordingly, he has done far more campaign rallies than the other two leaders – also likely because he does a better job of packing a room. Ford has preferred humbler settings like hotel ballrooms and legion halls than the event spaces and convention centres where Kathleen Wynne holds many of her events; it’s no coincidence that Ford, midway through the campaign, announced a policy exempting legion halls from property taxes. He’s also done fewer site-specific announcements than the Liberals or NDP. Where Horwath has done 17 events, and Wynne a dozen, at schools, colleges, hospitals, childcare centres, transit stops and other government facilities, Ford has only done four.

Regional Breakdown

Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area

Looking at the map you see a dense cluster of visits to the vote-rich 416 and 905 – not a surprise considering at least half the province’s population can be found in this region. But look a little deeper and some details emerge.

The 416

All three leaders have done a number of events in the most central downtown ridings, but that doesn’t give us much useful information about local dynamics. Rather, this is a key area because of its proximity to provincial news media, with leaders looking to get the attention of the journalists from television, GTA radio and the province’s highest-circulation newspapers.

Nevertheless, we see more events within Toronto’s borders than other recent elections, where the focus has been squarely on the suburbs. Kathleen Wynne has been particularly ubiquitous within the city, which speaks both to Liberal weakness (Fortress Toronto seems to be breached) and to where they think they have their best chance to hold on to some ridings. Wynne has been most active in central Toronto, including four events in her own riding of Don Valley West. She’s spent less time in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke.

While Andrea Horwath has spent more time in Toronto than elsewhere, with more seats in play across the province she hasn’t done as many events there as Wynne. On the map her visits trace a rough “U”, concentrated in northern Etobicoke, downtown Toronto, and Scarborough. She has avoided a swathe of wealthier neighbourhoods that cut down the center of the city, like York Mills, Lawrence Park, the Bridle Path and Forest Hill, which are likelier to go Tory than NDP.

Although pundits have made much of the PCs’ appeal to Toronto’s Ford Nation, their leader has spent less time in the city than either of the other two. His visits have almost entirely avoided downtown, where he may be a net negative for his party, although he has made a handful of trips to Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. Aside from Spadina-Fort York, which is not in play for the PCs but is close to provincial reporters, Ford’s most-visited Toronto riding was his own, Etobicoke North.

The 905

This region, closely fought over by PCs and Liberals in recent elections, has been crucial to putting the winning party over the top. If a surging NDP wants to win government, they need to do well here; polling suggests their best shot is in Brampton. The Liberals currently dominate but are at risk of losing every seat, their best hope being popular incumbents like Steven Del Duca in Vaughan-Woodbridge.

After Toronto, the Premier has spent more time in the city’s suburbs than anywhere else in the province, and she’s also been the most active leader here. Her visits have been concentrated in the west GTA, particularly Peel Region, where’s addressed many religious and cultural events. She has made only one visit to the east GTA, where Liberals have traditionally been weaker. Dramatically, the Premier’s tour has virtually abandoned the north GTA, where in 2014 the party won every seat save Thornhill.

Doug Ford has spent as much time in the GTA as he has in Toronto, splitting his events about equally between Peel, Halton and York Regions. Unlike the Liberals and NDP, he’s mostly avoided Brampton, a city where previous leader Patrick Brown had deep roots but where today several PC candidates have been caught up in scandal. Ford has spent more time in farther-flung suburbs like Newmarket, Milton, Oakville and the riding of King-Vaughan.

Andrea Horwath has spent the least time in the GTA out of the three leaders, suggesting a strategy to run up the score in regions like southwestern Ontario while doing just well enough in the suburbs to win. The NDP’s best opportunity is Brampton, and Horwath has made more trips there than anywhere else in the region. Otherwise she’s hugged the shoreline, hitting southern Mississauga, Whitby and Bowmanville. As for York Region? She hasn’t once ventured above Steeles Avenue, Toronto’s city limit.


In recent years Hamilton-Niagara has become an NDP-PC battleground. Doug Ford made the most appearances in this campaign, visiting seats that should be safely in the PC column like Niagara West and Haldimand-Norfolk, as well as Niagara Centre (long held by the NDP but now an open seat) and Niagara Falls (where the PCs have had some near misses). Horwath twice visited St. Catharines, the Liberals’ last Niagara bastion, and made two trips in the campaign’s closing days to Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas, suggesting a pick-up opportunity there. Kathleen Wynne has been mostly absent, with only two events in the region – one of which was in Horwath’s own riding, an NDP lock.

The Rest of The Province

It may seem Toronto-centric to divide this analysis into “the GTHA” and “everything else” – but the three leaders combined made over 130 appearances in Toronto and its suburbs, compared to about 90 anywhere else. And of those 90 visits, nearly half were in the southwest. So let’s start there.

Southwestern Ontario

For decades, Ontario’s southwest was Liberal country, but as many of its cities failed to participate equally in the province’s post-2008 economic recovery, and with rural voters alienated by Liberal decisions, the party was almost wiped out in 2011. Today, this area is crucial for the NDP, which is why Andrea Horwath has spent as much time here as the other two leaders combined – and more than she’s spent anywhere else outside of downtown Toronto. In fact, she’s had nearly as many events in Kitchener-Waterloo-Guelph as in the entire 905.

She’s spent most of that time in unheld ridings, hitting both urban PC ridings like Chatham-Kent-Leamington and Sarnia-Lambton (3 times each) and rural hinterlands like Oxford, Perth-Wellington and Elgin-Middlesex-London. Given the time and distance involved to visit just a few ridings, leaders rarely take so many trips outside the GTA. Horwath has countered with a punishing schedule: her last trip southwest took her to 13 towns in two days.

Doug Ford has done about half as many events in the southwest as Horwath. He’s spent some of this time fending off the NDP in some of the same ridings Horwath has visited, but he’s also taken the fight to NDP areas like Essex and Windsor. Ford has done three events in London North Centre, which by the metrics of leader’s visits is one of the most competitive ridings in the province; recently vacated by Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, both PCs and NDP see their chance to win, while the Liberals are desperate to hold on to this last toe-hold in their once-formidable London redoubt. Otherwise, Kathleen Wynne has made few trips this way other than to Kitchener-Waterloo-Guelph which, with five events, is her most-visited area outside the Toronto region.

Central and Eastern Ontario

The ribbon of ridings starting north of the GTA and stretching east to Quebec has not typically held many battlegrounds. Here the Liberals do well in cities (like Ottawa, Kingston and Peterborough), the PCs everywhere else, and the NDP nowhere at all. With the Grits’ vote collapsing, however, some ridings could be up for grabs.

Doug Ford has spent more time in central Ontario than anyone else, with trips to fire up receptive audiences in PC ridings like Parry Sound-Muskoka and Simcoe North. He’s spent less time in the province’s eastern reaches, where Tory candidates shouldn’t need his help to win with enormous margins. In addition to a jaunt to Peterborough, he book-ended his campaign with eastern tours: heading to Ottawa on the day the writ dropped, returning just days before the election.

Kathleen Wynne has spent the most time of the three leaders in Ottawa, shoring up the Liberal vote in what should be its best region outside of Toronto. But she’s mostly stuck to the city; even at the best of times the party has little hope of making inroads in the deeply conservative rural east, other than with some pockets of frano-Ontarians near the Quebec border.

Eastern and central Ontario are tough territories for New Democrats, and Horwath has been an elusive presence there. The one exception has been Paterborough-Kawartha, a riding the NDP hopes to turn orange. Otherwise, she’s only made one trip east, with whistle stops in the two other eastern ridings the NDP see as in contention – Ottawa Centre and Kingston and the Islands.

The North

Given the expense and long distances, leaders rarely spend much, if any, time in northern Ontario. This campaign has arguably seen more attention paid to the region than usual, with all three leaders participating in a northern debate (an event Wynne and McGuinty skipped in recent campaigns). Not surprisingly, Andrea Horwath, who hopes to sweep the far north, has spent the most time there, visiting remote communities in new ridings Kenora and Kiiwetinoong. Ford and Wynne have each made a single trip north, where the Liberals are pinning their hopes on local incumbents more than their unpopular leader to hold on to their remaining ridings in the region.