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Testing conventional wisdom Add to ...

Municipal politics is very different from federal or provincial. In most cities or towns, there are no political parties, although there might be loose affiliations. (Vancouver is a notable exception with two strong local political parties, Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Alliance.)

Turnout is also typically lower. The rule of thumb is that federal elections are around 65% turnout, provincial around 55% turnout and municipal around 40% turnout.

But in one respect, municipal politics is just like provincial or national politics here or anywhere. Conventional wisdom is allowed to run unchecked and impede the thinking of decision makers.

The current jockeying among potential candidates to replace David Miller in Toronto is a prime example.

Toronto will have an election in November 2010. The incumbent mayor, David Miller, represents the left side of the municipal spectrum, and is supported by coalition of New Democrats, Greens and a few left-Liberals or red Tories. He is generally seen as vulnerable in the next election because of a combination of the recession, higher taxes, moribund services and the current strike.

An assortment of candidates want to be the unopposed challenger to Mr. Miller, but there are no rules, no defined electorate, no real method of determining who that person should be. Anyone can throw their name on the ballot and raise money and try to get the most votes on Election Day.

Current city councilors Karen Stintz, Denzil Minnan-Wong and Michael Thompson are certainly running, but with varying degrees of organizational support. Councilors Rob Ford and Case Otis would like to run, but are finding few takers. Ontario deputy premier George Smitherman is the consensus choice for best candidate, but he would rather keep his current job by all accounts. People as diverse as former Toronto Argo Pinball Clemons and City Summit Alliance chair David Pecaut get their names bandied about in the papers. Former Ontario PC Party leader John Tory is organizing a "Draft Tory" campaign.

All of these pseudo-candidates are competing for support from a pool of centrist and right-of-centre political organizers in Toronto who are - on average - more conservative and Conservative than the general population of Toronto voters open to an option other than Miller. The result has been a pseudo-"primary" that features candidates positioning themselves far to the right of the electorate, with a solely negative agenda.

Here is where the old conventional wisdom comes into play.

Conventional wisdom among those seeking to replace Miller is that it will be critical to only have one candidate in the race against the mayor. If its mano-a-mano, Miller can't win.

A second piece of conventional wisdom is that If it's one-on-one then that candidate can promise to fulfill all the pet issues of the local business/political elite (bridges to the island airport, lower business taxes, etc) and still win, vindicating the 2003 election loss to Miller.

A third piece of conventional wisdom is that a Conservative would make a great candidate.

A fourth item is the general thinking that the ballot question will automatically be "David Miller: Do you want to dump him?" and couldn't possibly become "Wow, that other guy is crazy/inexperienced/out of touch/dangerous."

The problem is all this thinking is backwards.

First, the idea that there can be only one candidate in the race against Miller for fear of splitting the vote is less true than it recently was, and may never have actually been justified.

Polling at the municipal level in Toronto is rare, so the recent rash of polling provides a shocking glimpse at how unpopular David Miller has become in a relatively short time.

An Angus Reid survey finds that 67% of Toronto residents disapprove of Mayor Miller's handling of the strike. The polling firm's Jodi Shanoff notes that it is only the even greater disgruntlement aimed at CUPE that is preventing a complete collapse in Miller's standing.

The Ipsos study undertaken mostly immediately before the strike found that 57% of the Toronto electorate say the city is on the wrong track, the kind of number that typical leads to defeat at the polls if it does not reverse.

So let's take it as a given that David Miller's overall support is in serious trouble, that trouble preceded the current strike and that it is only getting worse.

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.

Sure, "bags, bottles and bicycles" are the wrong priorities for the majority of the electorate, but they aren't inherently wrong. Torontonians are pretty leftish and Green. Threatening to be the pro-car, anti-recycling Mayor isn't the sweet spot for that electorate.

To win a mayor's race against an incumbent on the left doesn't mean you have to define yourself as the candidate of the right. It means defining yourself as the right candidate for the job.

The third piece of conventional wisdom is the thinking that the good way to run is to run as a Conservative. It is held by many organizers, possibly even a majority of those looking for a candidate to back.

Tim Hudak was commenting on the race recently, and said "I'm always happy to see strong people who have a right-of-centre position who are interested in serving the city of Toronto."

It makes sense that Hudak would. He is a right-of-centre leader of a right-of-centre party. But how successful has that right-of-centre agenda been in Toronto of late?

Right now, there isn't a single right-of-centre representative at the provincial or federal level of government in the entire city of Toronto.

Provincially, Toronto's representatives are four New Democrats and nineteen Liberals. Federally, it's two New Democrats and twenty-one Liberals.

The last Conservatives at either level elected in the City of Toronto were voted into office in 1999.

There are Conservatives on city council. Almost all are holdovers from the nineties or earlier for whom incumbency, not party, has been their singular advantage.

This could change. But if I was standing in a desert and hoping plate techtonics would create a mountain, I wouldn't get up every day and put on ski gear.

Similarly, if I was a Tory thinking of running in Toronto, I'd probably put that at the very bottom of my resume.

Running as an unabashed Conservative for mayor is a bad idea. Running someone who is a Liberal, even a business Liberal, or a here-to-for non-partisan is a superior placement given the electorate wasteland that Toronto is for Conservatives, red or blue.

There may be room for a card-carrying PC to run, but they will need to subsume their affiliation beneath centrist positioning and rhetoric.

The last piece of conventional wisdom is the absence of concern about what the ballot question needs to me.

Every election I've worked on where the campaign couldn't define their chosen ballot question immediately and show how everything they were doing was building to that decision, they lost.

The ballot question from a non-Miller perspective needs to be "change vs. more of the same."

To do that, the candidate needs to define change in a way that is bold and yet non-threatening to the electors you need to win.

(This is not yet an election where the electorate is looking for "immediate radical change vs. this godawful status quo" as they were in 1995 in Ontario or 2001 in British Columbia. The city still works. It's just not heading in the right direction.)

To her credit, Karen Stintz has done more to lay out this type of a vision than the other contenders to the chain of office.

Stintz would upload Union Station to the province, making it into a regional transit hub, instead of the mall envisioned by the current city administration.

She announced she would review city assets for sale, including Toronto Hydro, Enwave and the Parking Authority. As Stintz pointed out, sitting on billions in assets while contemplating defaulting on welfare payments is simply unjust.

This is the kind of change a majority of electors wants and can handle: Getting out of things city governments don't need to be in to do the things they should better.

The competition for those who want to challenge Miller shouldn't be "who can be the most anti-Miller." It needs to be a contest of ideas to improve the city, rationally and pragmatically.

Because a single anti-Miller candidate won't prevail if he or she doesn't have a clear vision of where they want to take the city.

Those power brokers and organizational barons current swapping advice on who they should back for mayor need to take a very clear eyed look at the challenge before them, because it is far more complex than whittling the field down to the last person standing and then getting behind them.

Personality and ideology and party and ideas still matter.

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