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Testing conventional wisdom Add to ...

A second finding in the survey is critical: Miller's support is soft. Simply by putting his name on the ballot, George Smitherman pulls almost a quarter of David Miller's coalition away from him. Hypothetically running against John Tory, Miller gets 28% support. Against Smitherman, this falls to 21%.

The conventional wisdom that there could be only a single challenger to Miller was based on the untested belief that Miller could hold the chunk of the left and centre-left electorate he won in 2003 and 2007. That clearly is not the case, and any opposing campaign of reasonable ability will be able to surpress Mr. Miller's support below a 30% threshold and possibly far lower.

Having a single serious right-wing candidate run against Miller might make it easier to win, but it might also allow Miller to make the election about that right-wing candidate. The idea that "anyone is better than Miller" holds cachet among the pool of anti-Miller organizers. It might not actually hold up when the "anyone" is defined, "anyone's" worst policy position distorted and "anyone" spend the last three weeks of the campaign on the defensive, incapable of reframing the election.

In short, Miller will probably lose the next election unless the fundamentals change. What could change the fundamentals is a bad candidate running against him.

More critical than just having one opponent is having the correct opponent, one who can keep the ballot question on "change vs. more of the same."

There is a second reason that the conventional wisdom may be wrong, and it is organizational, rather than public opinion-based. At present, the machine political support Miller once enjoyed from the City of Toronto's labour unions is threatened, but not yet severed.

In 2003 and 2007, Miller enjoyed a significant organizational advantage. His supporters in Toronto's unions were able to mobilize a serious Get-Out-The-Vote machine on election day that could increase turnout among likely Miller voters. Study after study shows that the most effective way to get a voter to vote is to have someone knock on their door, far more than phone calls, voice-mail drops, emails or pamphlets. Miller's union allies were able to put the feet on the street needed to do just that hundreds of thousands of times over.

That institutional advantage will be damaged in the next election, possibly completely gone.

But an opponent who polarizes the electorate, one who campaigns on a language of "smash the unions" may enjoy popular support among the relatively small pool attracted to that kind of thing. Typically, those are mostly found in the type of person who would be shopping around for a mayoral candidate to support against David Miller these days.

The corollary is such an opponent may drive CUPE and other unions back into Miller's arms. The unions are unlikely to fall into the same mistake in 2010 they made in 1995, when OPSEU, CUPE and others targeted the NDP as their enemy for the Social Contract and wound up with two terms of Mike Harris.

A moderate and conciliatory rhetoric may prove better at keeping that unionized organizational advantage sidelined, even if the policy is to retrench on wages.

So again, the candidate is a critical factor, possibly more important than there being a single candidate. There is a possibility that in a three-candidate race, with Miller, a right-wing anti-union candidate and a centrist reformer, you could see the organizational support of the unions behind the middle-candidate in a "screw Miller, stop the anti-union guy" move.

The second item of conventional wisdom is the notion that the best way to win is to be the anti-Miller, and it seems a bit far-fetched.

A good example would be the environment.

Karen Stintz recently gave a speech in which she pilloried David Miller for focusing on "bags, bottles and bicycles" ahead of the concerns of average residents.

It's a good line, and one that makes sense if you are running to be the anti-Miller. But it makes no sense in a world where environment continues - despite the recession - to be a fundamental value for the vast majority of Toronto residents, and where environmentalists are routinely listed in public opinion research as the most credible spokespeople on almost any issue.

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