Is Rob Ford the Teflon mayor? After the past couple of months, you might have expected his approval rating to plummet. Instead, it’s gone up, and whether you like it or not, he’s positioned to take a realistic run at re-election next year. Edward Keenan explains why the Ford era might not be ending any time soon.
The poll results arrived last week, sending a thousand-volt charge to Toronto’s brain: Mayor Rob Ford’s approval rating is 47 per cent. Yes, his popularity has actually increased by five points since the last survey, which was taken in May. Reading the numbers, you could feel the message’s current running up your spine and frying your illusions of a just universe. Oh. My. God. You mean this guy could win again?
The answer is yes. Rob Ford could win re-election—even after his policy agenda was completely derailed by rogue councillors; even after his competence was put on trial in various ethics-related cases; and even after the reports that a video exists of him allegedly smoking crack cocaine led to a mass exodus of his staff and turned Toronto into an international laughingstock. And never mind that the alleged video appears to be connected to a massive police investigation involving gangs, drugs, and murder.
After all this, Ford could win again. The possibility is not a small one. His 47 per cent approval rating lines up with the 47 per cent of the vote he received in 2010.
You can try shaking yourself out of the stupor by noting that 47 per cent isn’t an especially impressive approval rating for a first-term mayor. (Mel Lastman and David Miller were well over 60 per cent at similar stages in their administrations.) As well, Ford doesn’t lead in any of the head-to-head scenarios against various (so far undeclared) individual rivals.
And yet, with seven or more candidates weighing their chances in a run against him (Olivia Chow, John Tory, Karen Stintz, Shelley Carroll, Adam Vaughan, Sarah Thomson, and Denzil Minnan-Wong—see this related story to assess their chances), the potential for Ford’s opponents to crowd in and split the vote seems all too real. He may be a spent force at City Hall, but among the electorate, the mayor retains solid appeal.
Let’s break down that 47 per cent. This latest poll by Forum Research—along with numerous other voter surveys this year—indicates that about 30 per cent of voters will never abandon him. That’s Ford Nation, an immovable object in the GTA political scene.
For many of us, that’s an almost unbelievable proposition. How could anyone prefer Ford to…well, anything? The answer is fairly straightforward. There’s a chunk of hardcore Ford supporters who really don’t care about mayoral competence, just low taxes (and maybe garbage pickup). Many are ideological conservatives (or libertarians of a sort), so disenchanted with the concept of local government that they don’t believe the city can do anything worthwhile with the tax dollars it collects.
Another sizeable cluster identifies personally with Ford. They think he is their kind of guy—an outsider, a loner, a thorn in the side of various pointy-headed establishment types. These folks believe that almost every problem Ford has faced is a result of dirty opposition tactics—a plot to bring him down because he threatens their power. It doesn’t much matter to them that Ford was born rich, to a powerful father, or whether he’s innocent or guilty of the misdeeds of which he’s accused. This personal identification with the mayor isn’t based on rational thought; it’s a gut-level decision that was made years ago and is now a matter of faith, immune to factual rebuttal. And, even after the spring of Ford’s discontent, there’s an additional 20 per cent or so of the citizenry who are willing to consider voting for him, and would probably prefer him to a leftist candidate.
These swing voters say they approve of the mayor’s performance in general terms. They may like Ford, and believe he’s been unfairly demonized, but they aren’t necessarily fans of everything he’s done and might change their voting preference depending on the final roster of candidates. They’re open to voting for a more effective alternative if they believe one exists. That’s where the potential votes for a Ford opponent can be found.
So we’re a city divided—about half of us regard the idea of Ford winning the next election as a zombie-movie nightmare, the corpse of his brain-dead ideology and political persona lumbering out of the grave to feast on us. But the other half—give or take a couple of percentage points—would prefer another four years of Ford to many of the other options.
So you want to beat Rob Ford? I’ll tell you how to beat Rob Ford: He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to…wait, that’s not Ford. That’s how you beat Al Capone. Yet the line from The Untouchables springs to mind because it seems that Ford’s fiercest opponents hope to follow the strategy outlined in that movie. Just as Capone, the mobster, was brought down on charges of tax evasion, Ford’s opponents have hoped one of a series of personal scandals or procedural infractions would end the mayor’s career. God knows there have been enough opportunities to see how well that strategy works. Half the voters just don’t care. In fact, the scandal parade only makes him stronger in the eyes of some, hardening their conviction that even if he is a bit of a witch, he’s still the subject of a ridiculous witch hunt.
And in a way, they’re right. It’s not that the conflicts of interest, the disregard for integrity rules, and the possible conclusions to the weird drug-related saga aren’t important. They are, and we should all hope that justice is eventually served in cases where various wrongs may have been committed.
But larger-scale political justice for the city would require defeating Ford in a more fundamental way. As toxic as his style of governance has been, the real stain he put on city government is his political platform: the proposition that City Hall is a giant, wasteful mess; that Toronto should stop thinking like a big metropolis and take the small-town cheap route at every crossroads; that attempting to invest in our future together is a political crime. That’s the real Ford snow-job. He was wrong when he campaigned on it, and he is wrong now. So while it’s still possible that Ford could be removed somehow—by a police investigation or some other mechanism—before the next election, that’s not a deus ex machina scenario his opponents should count on, or even hope for. To actually beat him, his opponents need to defeat his politics at the ballot box—his corrosive anti-urban, anti-government, anti–city building ideas.
So how do you do that? Well, you could start by looking at the past two closely contested Toronto mayoral elections, in 2003 and 2010. Both those campaigns were won by candidates (Miller and Ford) with relatively low name recognition who polled weakly at the start of the race. This could be a sign that the current obsession with tracking how Olivia Chow and John Tory stack up before the race has even begun is misguided. There’s a prevailing belief that the anyone-but-Ford camp needs to unite behind a single candidate (whoever polls highest at the starting line, it may be assumed) before the race officially kicks off. But Miller and Ford won in crowded fields, and neither of them did it by watching their ideological opponents split the vote.
Instead, they did it by offering the best-defined visions for the city in their respective races. Miller, with his broom, his talk of a “magnificent city,” and his proposals to clean up the environment, City Hall ethics, and the streets, set the tone of the race and had everyone else debating his ideas. In a different way, Ford outlined a vision of City Hall as similarly out of touch and wasteful, and offered a small-government vision based around the theme of stopping waste and respecting taxpayer dollars (especially those of car drivers).
Whether you agree with either of those visions is less important than the fact that they defined their respective races, and to some extent were the only clear visions offered in each of those contests. For voters looking to be inspired—hoping to vote for something other than a candidate’s resumé and general warm vibes—Miller and Ford were the only products on offer those years.
So maybe the way to win this time around would be to approach the race in a similar manner. Rather than obsessing over who scores highest in early polls, Ford’s opponents should start by asking the really essential question: What kind of city do we want to live in? Perhaps it’s a city in which public housing offers dignity to those who live there, where access to parks and recreation services isn’t dependent on your income, where public transit isn’t just viable but attractive as a way to get to and from every corner of the city. Once you start to offer answers to that question, you can begin to see the faint outline of a philosophy. You define what you love about the city and what it needs to become stronger, and then the concrete steps to get there cohere into a plan. Voilà: a platform that ties directly to your vision of the city—something people can believe in and vote for.
If there’s one thing history has shown us, it’s that a credible candidate with a well-defined platform is far more likely to win than whichever candidate happens to lead polls 18 months before election day. Those candidates could be the same person, but they don’t need to be. And historically in Toronto, they haven’t been.
Still, the new poll is useful for one thing: It confirms that Rob Ford remains an electoral force to be reckoned with. If the scandals he’s lived through—including allegations of crack cocaine use, for god’s sake—haven’t finished him off, then it’s unlikely anything will. So the job is left to democracy. We can do better. (In fact, that could make a good slogan for a candidate.) But the anyone-but-Ford mode of thinking that seems to have gripped some of the mayor’s potential opponents and much of the media isn’t the way to find something better. “I’m not Ford” isn’t a message that will resonate with half of the electorate, who seem to like Ford just fine. So how about we start talking about what kind of city we want to live in, and then, when the time comes, support a candidate who shows us a plan to deliver it?
Tortoise and the hare, Toronto mayoralty-race edition
Even if a mayoral candidate is leading the polls a few months before election day, it’s no guarantee they’ll ultimately win. In fact, the opposite is often true in Toronto. Rob Ford is just the latest beneficiary of the come-from-behind trend in our municipal elections.