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OLP leadership candidates confident in their paths to victory

Ontario Liberal Party members will be going to the polls this weekend. We spoke with the candidates' well-connected supporters

To hear Yasir Naqvi and Nate Erskine-Smith tell it, “Nobody’s winning this on the first ballot.”

But Bonnie Crombie, the perceived front-runner in the Ontario Liberal leadership race, disagreed with them in a debate hosted by TVO last week.

“It’ll always depend on turnout,” she said.

Each of the four candidates told The Trillium in media scrums after the debate what they believe their path to victory is — and was told it'll require a lot of hard work. Half a dozen well-connected Liberal sources then elaborated, on background, to us how the campaigns will try to get their candidates across the finish line. 

What Crombie said publicly — that turnout is key, and her team is focused on getting out the vote this weekend — was a universal theme.

Provincial Liberal party members are voting directly in this race for the first time after it ditched a delegated system, adding meaning to who shows up to vote this weekend.

And since memberships are free and available online, it’s much easier to become a member than it is to go in person — or in the case of some northern ridings, go to a mailbox — to cast a ballot. A turnout of 40-plus per cent of the 103,000-strong list of members would be very strong, some Liberals said. 

“Anything north of 40 per cent would be, I think, a pretty significant number,” said longtime Liberal Dan Moulton, who’s remained neutral in the contest. 

The successful candidate needs to win on points — 6,471 points, to be exact.

Each of the province’s 124 ridings is allotted 100 points, each of the 10 Ontario Young Liberal student clubs is allotted 50 points and each of the eight women’s clubs is allotted five points. All are awarded in proportion to the number of ballots cast in each riding or club.

Elections Ontario fundraising data up to Nov. 24, which only captures donations over $200, shows Crombie with over $1.2 million in the bank. Erskine-Smith is in second with just under $500,000. Yasir Naqvi is in third with $389,000, and Ted Hsu is a close fourth with $379,000, according to real-time donations data from Elections Ontario, which does not capture donations under $100. 

At the TVO debate, Erskine-Smith said he believes he leads in donations under $200 and made the case that this shows he has the most "grassroots" supporters who will come out to vote. "No one's walking away with this based on earning dollars from people who aren't even voting in this race."

For both Erskine-Smith and Naqvi, the path to victory lies in their alliance with each other: they’ve announced that they’ll pick the other as their second choice on their own ballot and urged their supporters to do the same.

They’re also collaborating on their get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts — and by all accounts, they’ll need to get out enough votes between them to ensure Crombie doesn’t get it in one.

Some Liberals said this is a very important part of the pact because Crombie has out-fundraised them both combined, giving her a large advantage in GOTV resources.

One well-connected source described the pair's plan as less than a formal arrangement — rather than a negotiated agreement where the two camps split the province along geographic lines.

It’s more like a reflection of the trusting relationship between the candidates, two sources said. 

Naqvi and Erskine-Smith said they’d agreed to mark each other second on their ballots because of the respect and open communication they’d developed on the campaign trail. Their local get-out-the-vote teams are working together in the same spirit.

“But everybody still wants to finish first, right?” one source said.

“If two campaigns are trusting enough of each other to do a joint press conference outside Queen’s Park to announce this thing, we probably have other ways or other things we’re capable of co-ordinating, as well,” another source said.

The pact benefited the two candidates in different ways, sources said.

For Erskine-Smith, Naqvi’s long history in the party lent him institutional legitimacy. For Naqvi, Erskine-Smith’s support gave him a boost from someone seen as a quasi-outsider maverick, from the more progressive side of the party. 

That was echoed by a third source, who said the “bromance pact,” was probably more useful for Erskine-Smith, who played it like Naqvi endorsed him, or at least validated him, lending him his deep roots in the party as a former party president and cabinet minister.

For either to win, Crombie can’t get it in one or be in striking distance of 50 per cent of the points on the first ballot.

“A second ballot pleases no one,” said one Bonnie booster, who is confident that if Crombie doesn’t win in the first round, she’ll be close enough that her share of the fourth-place candidate’s votes will get her over the top in round two. 

If Crombie gets a percentage of the votes in the high 40s on the first ballot, the other teams will have lost hope of winning, so they won’t be pleased, and team Bonnie won’t be pleased they missed out on getting a clear first-ballot win, the source said.

“I think she needs 42 per cent, in my opinion, on the first ballot in order to sustain the momentum to win the thing. She falls lower than that, I think it's a pretty clear signal it's anybody's ball game,” Moulton said. 

That fourth-place candidate — according to nearly all of the Liberals we spoke with — was presumed to be Hsu, the MPP from Kingston who is popular locally but isn’t thought to have as strong a presence outside of his region.

That, however, is not how he sees it.

“I have a lot of second-choice support,” Hsu said after the TVO debate. “And I think my (first-choice) numbers are good enough that I will survive into a later round.”

Hsu said he’d seen a recent bump in first-ballot support and donations and had been contacting voters — including going door-to-door in key ridings — and converting Crombie supporters to his camp.

One source on a rival campaign said they’ve spoken to a lot of Hsu supporters who might take kindly to Erskine-Smith’s detailed approach to policy, specifically on climate change. The source thinks Erskine-Smith’s emphasis on rural Ontario jives well with Hsu’s ethos. 

Naqvi’s team has engaged Hsu’s supporters and thinks that work will pay off in several eastern and northern ridings. 

Hsu has also sharpened his attacks on Crombie in recent debates, leading some campaigns to think it won’t be as simple as Hsu’s supporters going to Crombie en masse after the first ballot. 

And Hsu is not the only one door-knocking. Naqvi has also spent time targeting high-value ridings with a personal approach, according to a strategy set out by his team’s “grand math wizard,” campaign veteran Milton Chan.

“We focused on campus clubs and high impact ridings — northern and rural ridings, and urban ridings with small membership lists, where every additional vote yields a disproportionate number of points versus ridings in large urban centres,” Chan said in a memo sent to the Naqvi team, obtained by The Trillium

Naqvi “knocked on some doors that have not seen a Liberal canvasser seeking support in over a decade. This personal outreach is yielding some inspirational results,” Chan said, citing endorsements from former candidates and MPPs in Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound, Nipissing, and Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, all of which have fewer than 350 members. 

Erskine-Smith has also been heavily focused on the north. He started campaigning there early and has visited most of the ridings half a dozen times, a source close to him said. But others said while his northern advantage may have existed early on, all the candidates have been there since.

Chan’s memo backs that up, saying the “bromance” pact will help Naqvi in the north.

But nearly all of the Liberals we spoke to were confident that the geography favoured their candidate of choice — and that other teams were under some misconceptions about where their support lies.

None of the camps have a perfect line of sight into what members are thinking and how they’ll vote. They all have a copy of the 100,000-plus member list and make calls, and know how many candidates some of the other campaigns have claimed to have signed up.

This fall, Crombie said she’d signed up 38,700-plus new members while Naqvi’s team said he’d signed up “north of 31,000.” Adil Shamji, who later dropped out of the race to endorse Crombie, put his number at 12,063. There were about 34,000 existing members and neither Hsu nor Erskine-Smith gave numbers for their sign-ups. 

Crombie’s campaign has polled the list and claimed in an internal memo obtained by The Trillium that the poll, with a sample size of over 3,000 members, found she’s on the “cusp” of a first-ballot majority and is the second choice of Erskine-Smith and Naqvi voters, and virtually tied for second place as second choice for Hsu voters.

Others have thrown shade on the accuracy of that data, perhaps unsurprisingly. 

The Liberals we spoke with gave consistent pictures of what the appeal of each of the four candidates is to voters.

For Naqvi, it’s in part that there’s the chance of a historical first premier of colour, and first Muslim Ontarian to lead the province. His personal story of immigrating to Canada resonates with the diverse membership list, they say.

Erskine-Smith has the younger progressive wing, who appreciate his reputation as a principled maverick, see him as a breath of fresh air and are particularly motivated to vote, they say.

Hsu, for his part, has the reputation of a well-respected, smart, policy-oriented nice guy.

For Crombieites, their candidate is drawing Liberals in with a spark, a positive campaign, and the belief that she “spooks” Doug Ford. There’s also a “quiet Crombie voter” contingent, particularly among women, who don’t love how she’s been treated in the campaign.

Because Crombie has been seen as the front-runner since she entered the race, the other campaigns have been elbows up in the debates. Naqvi and Erskine-Smith, in particular, have jumped on her for early comments around the party being too far left and being open to Greenbelt land swaps. 

They also raised questions about her relationship with the development community, saying it presents an ethical and optical issue that would prevent the Liberals from attacking Ford on the issue. 

Moulton, however, doesn’t see any of this as an issue come Dec. 2. The new leader, he said, shouldn’t have much difficulty unifying the party.

“Liberals are generally pretty efficient at moving past leadership processes and rallying behind a new leader,” he said, because unlike the various Conservative parties where movement politics play a big role in keeping the tent together, “Liberals are much more moderate, much more oriented around seizing the levers of the state.” 

The chance to beat Ford in 2026, he said, should be enough to heal all wounds.