Since the court verdict that vacated Mayor Rob Ford’s seat came down on Monday, Toronto’s been thrust into an election campaign of sorts: people have started speculating about candidates, cutting ads, and wondering about who will come out on top. All this, despite the fact that there may not even be an election. (I’m betting there will be, but the Divisional Court could prove me wrong.)
One of the common refrains we’re hearing already is: Rob Ford won once, he could do it again. His base will be energized by this scandal.
For example, Steve Paikin:
If Ford Nation was becoming at all blasé because of the mayor’s travails, that will almost certainly come to an end. Ford Nation will be energized as never before at what it perceives as the “vast left wing conspiracy’s” attempt to remove Ford from office. They don’t see a man who broke the law. They see the elites ganging up on their guy.
And from Saturday’s Globe and Mail, an article by Adrian Morrow:
An Angus Reid poll released Friday, meanwhile, suggested three out of five people who voted for the mayor in 2010 would back him again in a by-election.
“A lot of people are surprised that he’s held the support that he has. It surprises me at times how resilient it is,” said Nick Kouvalis, the strategist who engineered Mr. Ford’s 2010 victory.
The consistent point being that, hey, don’t count him out.
Well, campaigns matter (especially at the municipal level where “fundamentals” are fuzzier to define) so Ford certainly “could”, in a mathematical sense, win re-election. But I think even a cursory view at the polls shows it’s unlikely, and a longer view at the last two years’ worth of polling shows that it’s difficult to imagine how Ford could do it.
Let’s start with the numbers from the Angus Reid poll. Some basic math shows us the depth of Rob Ford’s electoral hole. Angus Reid’s poll is online here, and it’s true that Ford has clung to 60% of his 2010 totals. But the remaining 40%, per Angus Reid, aren’t looking like potential Ford supporters:
Yes, Rob Ford currently hold 60% of his 2010 support. But of the 40% of his supporters he’s lost, 90% don’t intend to vote for him again. Which is why I’m putting in Angus Reid’s city-wide numbers as well, since it will be all of Toronto voters who go to the polls, not just Ford’s supporters.
And I don’t know how you look at a poll where the candidate has a 27% re-elect number and say “he could still win!” Actually, 27% is a significant number for political junkies: it’s the number of people who voted for Alan Keyes versus Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race. As John Rogers immortally wrote in 2005:
Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That’s crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.
Rob Ford’s political support, in at least one poll, has reached the Crazification Factor that Keyes did, and eventually George W. Bush did as well. It is not a place you want to be in when running for re-election.
Finally, there’s no evidence yet of a counterreaction to Justice Hackland’s decision. According to the Angus Reid poll, 40% of Rob Ford’s 2010 supporters agree with Hackland’s decision, and a massive 69% of voters city-wide do.
Forum Research has been polling more regularly than Angus Reid, and their results, while slightly more favourable for Ford, don’t give any evidence to pin hopes of a Ford groundswell on, either. We’ve got a good series of polls going back a year, but frankly the data hasn’t shown much change in that time so we might as well go with the most recent. (You’ll have to register for that PDF link, I think.)
Do voters oppose the judge’s ruling? Nope, city-wide the approval is 58-38. According to Forum’s poll, 27% of Ford’s 2010 supporters agree with the decision. When given a number of alternative punishments to choose from, exactly half still say he should lose his job (plenty of Ford critics who have no intention of voting for him reasonably enough disagree with the severity of the law.)
But if you go through the Forum polls, the preponderance of data suggests their IVR polling finds a hard core of Ford support of about 35%. Angus Reid pins it at 27%. I’ve seen no poll that suggests support for Ford in even the low 40s on a consistent basis. (As I hope you’ve gathered by now, I try to pay attention to this stuff.)
And this is the important part: Ford Nation is not a winning electoral coalition. 35% gets you a teary concession speech on election night. (Ask George Smitherman.) The 47% of the vote that Rob Ford legitimately won in 2010 (pending the conclusion of his campaign finance audit) is not all made up of “Ford Nation”. Rather, Ford Nation is somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of Toronto’s electorate and Ford managed to attract sufficient additional voters, in the unique circumstances of the 2010 election, to push him over the top.
Ah, you say, but what of the Toronto Left’s limitless capacity for electoral self-harm? What happens if Shelley Carroll, Adam Vaughan, Olivia Chow, and a bunch of other candidates step in to the race and split the vote? Indeed, backers of Olivia Chow are already using this scenario in order to arrogantly instruct sitting councillors to sit out the by-election.
We should never underestimate the left’s ability to step on a rake in this town, but it’s worth remembering the 2003 election: in a serious contest between serious candidates, the electorate did the choosing, with 81% of the vote coalescing behind either David Miller or John Tory, and no other candidate breaking double digits.
The vote-splitting on the left in 2010 was not because there were too many candidates (despite what Smitherman supporters would like to believe.) Some polling at the time suggested half of Joe Pantalone’s vote would have gone to Rob Ford, so if this had become a two-person race the only result would have been Ford having an outright majority, not the plurality he got.
Rather, the vote splitting on the left was because there were no good candidates to the left of Rob Ford. I have things to say about Carroll, Vaughan, and Chow, but I’m confident none of them would end up being the mediocrities that Smitherman and Pantalone were.
There’s also the fact that Adam Vaughan has repeatedly indicated that his priority is removing Ford, not being mayor himself. Given the polling numbers in place today, Vaughan is the only candidate with a serious chance of digging in to Chow’s support to any dangerous degree, and even that is minimal. If Vaughan sits this one out and lets Chow take the lead, I don’t see any possibility of substantial vote-splitting.
Now, the disclaimer: obviously, circumstances could change. If Olivia Chow pushes out all contenders and then collapses due to scandal or something, Ford could win again. But that’s not the argument that’s being made today. We’re seeing pundits and Ford supporters claim that there’s a groundswell of Ford support just waiting to happen in a by-election, a claim for which there is zero evidence. I suspect that Ford will just about keep his 35% in the Forum Polls on the yet-to-be-decided election day. But that’s not what victories are made of.
With all the evidence we have today, Ford is likely to lose. And it’s not going to be particularly close.