A lot of Torontonians are delighted, and celebrating the judgement that removed Rob Ford from the office of Mayor of Toronto. I have some bad news for them, Rob Ford will be permitted to run in a by-election, and he will win. Note that I am not qualifying my statement by saying he will probably win, or there is a good chance of it. The odds are more like 5:1 in favour of a Rob Ford victory.
Yes, I know that the past two years have been a continuous parade of buffoonery. That he was removed by a judge would be the kiss of death in most cases. Especially considering the facts surrounding the case. Yes, I know that to a reasonable person, he is not qualified to run the city, but election results, ( or by-elections in this case) are determined by counting ballots cast on election day. Don’t forget that the buffoonery pre-dates his mayoral election. Drunken cursing of an elderly couple at the Maple Leaf Gardens that he lied about. The Drunk driving and marijuana possession in Florida that he lied about. etc. etc. etc. The voters did not care and they gave him a mandate in 2010, so what is so different today?
Municipal elections normally have pretty dismal turnouts. In 2003, the turnout was 38%. In 2006 the turnout was 39%. However, in 2010, Ford won the Mayoralty from a whopping turnout of 53.2%! This turnout was no accident. Behind Rob Ford is Doug Ford, and the most impressive political and electoral database and organisation in Toronto. That database includes thousands of very committed Ford volunteers. (That is not hyperbole, the Fords had 5,000 volunteers within a week of announcing his intention to run in the spring of 2010). The turnout was comparatively massive because something had changed in Toronto, and that change came to be called ‘Ford Nation’.
So there it is, Rob Ford won in 2010 because he mobilised a huge slice of the electorate to get out and vote for FORD. We have all been reading the news since then, the seemingly endless gong-show of gaffes, fumbles, minor outrages, outright lies, which in our past experience should add up to terminate the Mayors career. But something different has happened. That highly motivated base of supporters has NOT withered away. Back in May, in the midst of one of the bozo eruptions where the Mayor threatened and charged at a Toronto Star reporter, the Mayors approval rating dropped to 41%. If you think that is old news, and that judicial removal from office should do the trick, current, and credible polls would SEEM to bear this out, but in fact they don’t.
If you look at the story on this poll, you will think I am nuts. How could I possibly argue that Rob Ford can overcome such dismal approval ratings? Because 16% of the electorate are still very strong supporters of Rob Ford, and 11% are likely supporters. That is enough for a disciplined campaign to win, because things are NOT as they seem. You see, it does not matter how many people respond to an opinion poll in a given way. What matters are the mechanical details about mobilising voters to cast a ballot. What matters is which people get out on E-day, and whose name the X goes next to.
Turnout is the biggest factor in play. In a normal Municipal election, there are actually 4 races going on at once. Mayor, Council, Public School Board, and Separate School board trustees. That gives the voters four reasons to get their butts down to the polling booth. A whole lot of people go to vote because their buddy is running for council, or trustee. Another slice goes to vote because they are motivated to vote AGAINST a council, trustee etc candidate. ( That bastard stole my lunch money in Grade 5). While they are there, they mark an X by a Mayoral candidates name. Then there are civic-minded citizens doing their electoral duty, a decided minority I might add. In a Mayoral by-election, only those motivated by the Mayoral vote, and a small number of civic-minded will go to the polls. Bang, turnout drops significantly, and casual Mayoral votes will not go into the box. Assuming the by-election will happen fairly quickly, we are likely to see a vote in perhaps February, or maybe March. Guess what, it is COLD and nasty at that time of year. If E-Day is on a cold or wet Monday, Bang, turnout drops dramatically. Ford Nation does not mind cold and rainy days though. Ford nation does not much care about smelly old council and trustee candidates. Ford Nationers belong to something. They care very much, and just as importantly, Ford Nation has an electoral MACHINE that will get them on the march on E-day.
Right, the electoral machine. What’s with that anyway? I mean, everybody seems to be saying such nasty things about Ford. The polls show that masses of people do not want him to be Mayor. What does some electoral gimmickry have to do with that? Simple, any electoral campaign that depends upon turnouts of motivated supporters, needs to be able to contact, identify, and motivate people to Get Out and Vote. If there is indeed a by-election, it shall happen quickly, and that is a huge boon to Ford. A normal municipal race happens on a fixed date every 4 years. The contenders prepare their plans slowly, cautiously weigh their chances, and gradually build a supporter network, funding commitments, and volunteer base. They mull over issues and policies, all in preparation for the main event. This by-election will feature none of the above. It shall be a come-as-you-are party. Olivia Chow is touted (reasonably) as the only viable alternate to Rob Ford, but even if she has been working towards that end for months, she does not have a machine in place, ready to ID and GOTV at the drop of a pin. The Fords on the other hand, have already moved into election mode. Phone banks are in action at this moment, contacting volunteers, polling to determine which supporters from 2010 can be counted on, and which have turned traitor, and should be persuaded to stay at home somehow. The Ford campaign will be fully funded within 24 hours of a by-election call. There will be thousands of dedicated volunteers door knocking, endlessly pounding the phones, attending rallys, and generally whooping it up.
Then there is the problem of a crowded field. I believe that all it takes to actually run for Mayor is a $1000 deposit. There are always a number of ambitious people, (Karen Stintz, Olivia Chow, Adam Vaughan, etc) both on City council, and in the City at large who are planning, or hoping to run in 2014. I can think of a number off the top of my head that are seeing their dreams of occupying the BIG CHAIR after 2014 in jeopardy at this moment. How many of them will say the hell with it, I am going for broke in the by-election? All it will take is two or more viable candidates running against Ford to nullify the ‘anything but Ford’ vote of casual voters.
So there it is, my argument that Rob Ford will likely win the upcoming by-election for Mayor of Toronto. His substantial base of dedicated supporters will be moved to volunteer and vote by a well oiled political machine. The antipathy to Rob Ford expressed by the Toronto electorate will not translate to a strong turnout of his opponents on E-Day. The RELATIVELY low centrist and left-wing turnout will divide their vote between 3 or 4 candidates, allowing Rob Ford to win the election with somewhere around 40% -45% of the ballots cast. You may not like it, but unless at least some of the things discussed above change, the outcome is quite predictable.