Robert Silver

The Rob Ford phenomenon

The Globe and Mail

Mayoral hopeful Rob Ford collects his thoughts during a debate with fellow candidates in Toronto on Sept. 16, 2010. (Chris Young/Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

Between today and Toronto's municipal election day next month, countless pundits are going to opine about what the surge of Rob Ford - part Back to the Future villain, part motivational speaker (think van, down by the river) - means. In particular, people are going to try and draw links between his success and our national and Ontario provincial politics. Is this a sign that the Tea Party movement is coming to Canada? Is this the revenge of the angry white male, part IX?

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Let me be the first to lay down a marker that there is no real "Rob Ford" movement about to sweep the country - at least not that I see. There are two reasons why I think Ford is winning the Toronto election campaign, one very simple, one far more complex, neither of which necessarily leads one to conclude there is a larger movement on its way.

The first reason why Rob Ford is winning this campaign is he has a message. It's a clear message. It's a message he's been repeating consistently for months now. It's hard to find a newspaper story where he's quoted and his message isn't landed cleanly. He also has a brand - he and his campaign know his brand attributes, who he is and they also know who he's not. Finally, he knows who his target voters are and they have been using tactics - both conventional and cutting edge - to get their message to these target voters.

In other words, they have run a very good campaign. With all respect and sympathy to my friends on other campaigns, none of them have a clear, consistent message or brand and on most days, it is quite apparent they have no idea who their target voters are.

Call me crazy but when one campaign has a clear, consistent message and brand that happens to resonate with a plurality of voters and his opponents do not, that candidate is in decent shape to win.

That's the most important thing that has happened in this campaign to date and it does not suggest a "Rob Ford Phenomenon" is about to sweep the country - unless the "phenomenon" is having a clear message, brand and sense of who your voters are (yes, which would be somewhat novel in many campaigns).

But there is something a bit deeper going on in Toronto, city of four million elites. I haven't seen a single focus group during this municipal campaign, but to get at what's going on imagine a focus group of a Rob Ford swing voter (ie, a voter who is now leaning towards him but was not when the campaign started) and reasons why this imaginary voter says he's supporting Ford (ie, these are his imaginary views, not mine):

» I drive my car to work every day. I am not a bad person just because I drive to work. I am tired of politicians who try to make me feel guilty for driving. There are no improvements to transit that would get me to stop driving. Period.

» I think the two biggest reasons there is so much traffic in this city are: (a) street-cars; and (b) bikes. I think politicians trying to bring more bikes and street-cars to Toronto are nuts. There is nothing you can say to me to convince me otherwise. Ford gets this.

» I will never install a solar panel on my roof and I think my neighbour who has them up is a bit of a weirdo.

» I don't trust city hall to get anything done. My most regular interaction with city hall is garbage collection and snow removal and the city does a terrible job on both. I wish I could still put my garbage out every week and just throw the bags on the curb the way we did it for 50-years. I recycle but I have three kids and we have a lot of garbage. I don't think a city can do all kinds of fancy things when they are so bad at the basics.

» Toronto is just where I live and work. I feel like vomiting when I hear politicians talking about "city building" or travelling the world to fancy conferences. Collect my garbage, run decent programs for my kids at the local park and keep my taxes low. How hard is this? Yet our politicians seem clueless. I like that Ford wants to tackle the basics.

» I had never heard of Rob Ford before this year. I don't really trust him to fix much but at least he doesn't talk down to me. Ya, the criminal record thing isn't great but at least he's honest about who he is. I guess that makes him better in my book than other politicians.

» I don't understand what the big fuss about John Tory is. I can't imagine that his day-to-day experience in Toronto is like mine. If he was running right now I can guarantee you I would still be voting for Ford.

» I have never been a member of a political party; I voted for Jean Chretien in 1993 and Dalton McGuinty in 2003. I also voted for Mike Harris in '95.

» I have never been to a single movie at the Toronto film festival - it's not really my scene.

Back to me. I have no doubt that candidates from Tim Hudak to Michael Ignatieff will try to tap into some of this sentiment - calling it anger is a lazy label for what's going on. While it's possible they will be successful, I think far more likely is that this is a response to a very specific set of circumstances surrounding anger at City Hall and the current administration rather than a phenomenon that can be replicated nationally.

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