TORONTO — The main figures are interesting enough -- that the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives are locked in a sluggish Ontario election race -- but the really compelling information lies just below the surface.
The poll this week by the Strategic Counsel shows that support for the Liberals and the Conservatives hasn't changed much in months, with the Liberals holding a six-point lead but still in minority-government territory. The survey found that the controversy over Conservative Leader John Tory's pledge to bring private religious schools into the public system had little impact.
But the poll also plumbed attitudes on a number of issues that offer a more nuanced glimpse. For example, when respondents were asked which political party has values that most reflect their own, the Liberals scored just 32 per cent - eight points below their top-line support level - while the Conservatives received 29 per cent or five points below the main voting-intention figure. The New Democratic Party was favoured by 19 per cent of the respondents (three points up from its popularity rating), while the Green Party got a 12-per-cent score, a two-point improvement on its 10-per-cent top-line score.
This is meaty stuff for backroom strategists, particularly the regional numbers, which show that the Liberals do well in Toronto and its suburbs but that the Conservatives have the edge in other regions.
The Strategic Counsel also asked nine questions about the parties' ability to deal with certain subjects. The answers aren't particularly surprising. The Liberals are seen as the best party to maintain high-quality public education. They double the Conservative numbers on this question, and significant numbers of Conservative, NDP and Green supporters agree. The Liberals do similarly well in the rating of their ability to manage the health-care system.
But the Conservatives are seen as the best to spend taxpayers' money wisely, to fight crime and to deal with Stephen Harper's federal Conservative government.
On four other issues, dealing with nuclear power, municipal financing, infrastructure and managing the economy, the survey respondents gave no party a clear edge. The NDP trails in all categories.
The findings suggest that, starting with tomorrow night's televised leaders debate, the Liberals should talk about little else but health and education and the Conservatives should put on Harper buttons and talk about hiring more police and locking up thugs.
But it's unlikely to unfold that way. Politics isn't a neat game in which players allow their rivals to occupy a high ground. The Liberals, for example, believe the good Conservative numbers on crime reflect superior branding without substance. Similarly, party officials are frustrated that the NDP is seen as the best guardian of the environment. In these and other cases, they aren't going to cede the ground without a fight.
And a fight is what Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty is girding for in the debate. His rehearsals have featured uninterrupted attacks on him by stand-ins for the opposition leaders. Conveniently enough, Mr. McGuinty will be at the middle lectern during the broadcast.
Conservative strategists say the Strategic Counsel findings are no surprise to Mr. Tory, because he's been hearing about his party's strengths and weaknesses on doorsteps for months. And they don't expect him to run and hide on something like the education issue because, they say, he is convinced he can persuade Ontarians his religious-schools policy is a principled stand by a leader.
In other words, the polls can inform but they can't dictate.