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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.

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