The Ontario election race appears to be tightening ahead of the formal start of the campaign, with one new poll putting the Liberals only four points back of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative party.

The Abacus Data survey of 1,500 Ontarians found that 36 per cent of decided voters plan to cast a ballot for Ford’s PC party in June, compared to 32 per cent who intend to vote for Steven Del Duca’s Liberal party and 23 per cent who said they would vote for Andrea Horwath and the NDP. About six per cent of respondents indicated that they vote for the Green party while four per cent said that they would vote for another party entirely.

The Liberals are up four points from a similar survey conducted in January while the Tories are down one point and the NDP are down two points.

In a release accompanying the poll results, Abacus Data CEO David Coletto said the Liberals do appear to be “within striking distance in the hypothetical ballot,” but he cautioned that they “still have a lot of work to do if they are going to win the election,” starting with the profile of their leader.

The poll found that nearly six out of 10 Ontarians (59 per cent) expressed a degree of unfamiliarity with Del Duca. Only 39 per cent said that they were unfamiliar with Horwath and only 15 per cent said that of Ford.

Ford also had a considerable advantage when it came to personal popularity.

Approximately 41 per cent of respondents said that they had a positive impression of the PC leader, up nine points since January.

About 31 per cent of respondents said that they had a positive impression of Horwath, compared to 30 per cent who said that they had a negative impression.

Del Duca was the only leader of the three main parties with a negative score. About 22 per cent of respondents said that they had a positive impression of him but 27 per cent said that they had a negative impression. A further 27 per cent expressed a “neutral” opinion of the Liberal leader.

Meanwhile, when it came to who would make the best premier 35 per cent of respondents identified Ford as their pick. Horwath was chosen by 17 per cent of respondents and Del Duca was chosen by 12 per cent of respondents.

“Steven Del Duca remains unknown to a large portion of the electorate and those that do have an impression of him are more likely to view him negatively than positively. He is well back in third when respondents are asked who will make the best premier,” Coletto noted in the release. “What is unknown at this point is whether vote intention will align more closely with the perceived best premier or whether the Liberals can hold onto their support despite how people feel about Mr. Del Duca.”

Cost of living a top issue for voters

Abacus has been tracking Ford’s popularity at regular intervals throughout his time in office.

The 41 per cent of respondents who said that they had a positive impression of the PC leader in its latest poll marks his highest level of support since May, 2020.

It is also a significant reversal from this time last year when only 28 per cent of respondents said that they had a positive impression of him.

Coletto, however, told CP24 on Thursday afternoon that Ford will likely have to get at least 40 per cent of the popular vote to earn a second majority government, something that the latest poll results cast doubt over.

“Right now these numbers Mr. Ford would probably be hard pressed to win a majority,” he said.

Looking ahead to the election campaign, which is likely to start next month, the cost of living was top of mind for many voters with 52 per cent of respondents identifying it as a ballot box issue. Other top issues included housing affordability (36 per cent), improving the healthcare system (33 per cent) and taxes (30 per cent).

Interestingly fewer than one out of four voters (22 per cent) identified the COVID-19 pandemic as a key issue.

“I think voters are generally ready to move past the pandemic,” Coletto said. “Certainly it's still spreading and we can all hear stories about people who are getting it but we're looking out to the future and election is typically about what do we want. There is no doubt that one issue is top of mind to voters of all ages, and that's the cost of living . So whether you're talking about your gas bills or food bills, whether it's the price of housing, or the taxes you're paying, all of those are combining to create an environment where I suspect that's going to be a key question that voters are going to be asking.”

The survey was conducted between April 14 and 19.

It is considered accurate to within 2.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.