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Toronto mayor Rob Ford. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto mayor Rob Ford. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

JOHN WRIGHT

Approval is not electability: Why Rob Ford is ‘dead mayor walking’ Add to ...

Bill Clinton’s chief strategist James Carville said after his first presidential win that the campaign was based on a simple and overarching message: ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid.’ What he meant with the blunt talk was clear – whatever anyone thought of “slick Willie,” the voter wave that sent him to the White House was because he connected with their deep concern about getting the slumping economy back on track. In doing so, not only did Democrats vote for him on this message – but also enough Independents and Republicans – that he won handily.

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Rob Ford did much the same thing running for mayor of Toronto in 2010, capturing 47 per cent of the votes. Despite some stories that involved public drinking – and a drug charge south of the border – that came up during the campaign, people kept with him, and the term “Ford Nation” was coined.

But that once-upon-a-time nation is a lot smaller today – about one in five voters (22 per cent) in Toronto continue to stick with him through thick and thin, down at least 25 points from those heady early days.

We know this from our latest polling, where people were given a choice of four ballot scenarios of declared and potential challengers. The Mayor only received between 19 per cent and 24 per cent voter support.

In effect, the latest poll has him as “dead mayor walking”. Can he come back and win? Based on these numbers – even with campaigning over the next year, his chances are slim to remote. He has about the same support as Michael Ignatieff did at the end of the last federal election and roughly the same as Brian Mulroney did when he stepped down as prime minister and Kim Campbell took over the Progressive Conservative Party.

So why do polls show his approval ratings as high as 40 per cent for his job as Mayor if he sits at only one in five willing to cast their ballots for him?

Because he was sent to do a job by electors and, for the most part, he did it and, in a way, still continues to do so without translating into voter support.

At the end of the 2009 Toronto municipal strike, it was widely perceived that then-mayor David Miller had caved in to the unions. The first polling number that portended Rob Ford’s election campaign theme was evident from poll results at the time: only 12 per cent of people felt their taxpayer dollars were being respected by city hall. And when the Ford “stop the gravy train” pulled into town the message was picked up like a dog whistle by voters as a signal that someone “got it”.

Torontonians had a choice in George Smitherman – but the former Ontario health minister was being held responsible for a $1-billion e-health taxpayer debacle, clearly not a winning platform with this crowd. Further, Mr. Smitherman had a campaign that looked more down into Toronto than out into the broader city. Essentially, he campaigned south of mid-town Eglinton Avenue and took to flying in a plane over the Toronto streetscape indicating that “transportation” was his number one issue, while candidate Rob Ford captured the outer core of the city and scooped up downtown homeowners who were angry over ever-increasing tax rates.

The top line numbers of our first election poll it appeared to support Mr. Smitherman’s transportation platform, as only 16 per cent chose fiscal responsibility as their number one issue for the mayoral candidates to address. But the assumption was wrong. Dead wrong.

When looking through the entrails of the polling there were other pieces that when stitched together told of a very different top concern. Small clusters were noted – 5 per cent here, 3 per cent there and so on, with titles like “taxes too high”, “too much being spent”, “tax dollars not respected” from respondents, the total was actually seven points higher at 23 per cent.

In short, the most important issue was not transportation but “the value of taxpayers money” and it was an attack on city hall for the way it handled taxpayer dollars. There was a desire to tighten the belt, privatize garbage and slim down a bloated city bureaucracy that didn’t seem necessary.

So even when mug shots of candidate Rob Ford arrested in the U.S. showed up during the campaign – then caught in a lie denying what had happened – it didn’t even dent the Ford cavalcade as it arrived at Nathan Phillips Square.

In fact, a few months later, newly elected Mayor Ford basked in 68 per cent approval ratings as he rolled up his sleeves and made a mandate out of the message: protecting the value of taxpayers money.

The irony is that the message of protecting the value of taxpayers money is not owned by any particular person or party. It’s one of those phrases and actions that is relevant for Liberals and New Democrats as well as Conservatives and it has voter resonance today not just in Toronto but also for casting ballots at the provincial and federal levels of government.

And it’s different than tax cuts. As long as the value of taxpayers money is being respected and prudently shepherded, then a rise in some tax measures may be deemed appropriate – but only when voters are convinced on the merits, and against a backdrop that other actions have been taken before the last-resort action.

So, Rob Ford still has 40 per cent approval for the job he’s doing (or at least done) as Mayor. So, where has Mr. Ford lost his support?

Equally from men and women, those over the age of 35 (equally middle age and 55+), those with high-school or more education, including half of those University educated, and those earning $30,000 a year or more. The basic profile of those who have moved their support is: middle-age to older, more-educated taxpayers outside of the downtown core, particularly notable in fall off of support in York, East York, North York and Etobicoke.

Those most likely to have stuck with him: young, high-school or less education, more likely from Scarborough and earning less than $30k a year. Essentially, many non-property owning taxpayers who may be getting more entertainment value out of the Mayor than his dedication to the job.

As the Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly recently said, the executive still believes in the principles of a fiscally conservative agenda and respecting taxpayers dollars but it was the Mayor’s behaviour that had begun to alienate team members who wanted to get on with the job. As such, he said, it was necessary to move the Mayor to a place where he wouldn’t be able to get in the way of the juggernaut he’d put in motion.

In other words, to paraphrase the deputy mayor: it’s the message, not the man, stupid.

John Wright is Senior vice–president of public affairs research for Ipsos Reid and has been with the company for 24 years.

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