Politics

01.03.14

How Rob Ford Could Win Reelection

His opponents are up against the bizarre logic that pushed the crack-smoking Toronto mayor to ascend and survive. But how far are voters willing to go for an agenda they support?

At 8:30 yesterday morning, Rob Ford showed up at an office deep in the bowels of Toronto’s City Hall, palming his passport and a wad of crisp $20 bills, the queen staring purse-lipped back from every one. He shook the hand of the lady at the desk, handed over his ID and his fee, and formally became the first crack-smoking mayor of Toronto to seek reelection.

Mobbed by reporters a few minutes later, with his ever-present brother-turned-campaign-manager looming behind him, Ford did not particularly want to talk about the crack part, or the connections-with-gangs part, or the lying-about-it-for-months part.  

“I’ve been the best mayor this city’s ever had,” he said, with the kind of straight face that could only come from actually believing it. “My record speaks for itself. Who got rid of the car-registration tax? I did. Who came in with a lower tax increase for four years? I have. Who’s got the best deals with the unions? I have.” 

The reporters, a war-weary crew who have spent years watching the Ford brothers fight a winning battle against objectively verifiable reality, tried to argue. (The tax claim, among others, was bogus.) But in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Torontonians, Ford really is the best mayor the city’s ever had. His approval ratings, improbably, hover around the 40 percent mark. Now Ford is counting on the most fanatical of his fans—his so-called Ford Nation—to lift him to what must seem like the most improbable reelection on record.

Does Rob Ford really have a shot? Could an otherwise-sane bunch of Canadians reelect a man who’s become a global icon of bad behavior? 

They just might. The question is, how likely is it?

Video screenshot

The world just can't get enough of Rob Ford.

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The first thing to keep in mind about Rob Ford is that his election in the first place actually made sense. Torontonians did not run out, in a crazed fit, and knowingly elect a man who hung out in crack houses and spent time under police surveillance, drank on the job and behind the wheel, and would eventually try to blame his use of crack cocaine on the fact that he was too drunk to know better. What they did elect was a rough-around-the-edges tax-cutting populist with honesty issues, but even the most thoughtful electorate gets in that mood, sometimes.

Ford was elected both because of the city’s short history, and the moment he chose to run. If he has a shot at the “best mayor ever” title, it’s because the city as it exists today has only had three mayors. Toronto—at 2.7 million people, the fourth-biggest city in North America—was only created in 1995, the unwilling amalgamation of its downtown and five sprawling suburbs. Grievances over the centralization of power downtown (with its latte-sipping elites, and so on) still runs strong.

The fact that we’re even having this conversation is remarkable: That Ford should be anything other than a dead man walking is staggering.

Ford was a suburban champion, a ward councillor who’d built a Paul Bunyan-like legend about himself by going around, dealing with small-ticket constituent concerns, one doorstep at a time. On AM radio, he railed against any and all taxes and public spending, and crowed about his prized habit of hardly spending any of his office budget. (This was made easier by the fact that he was a millionaire, born into a family printing business.) He flew into rages with some regularity, some of them drunken, and over the years said all manner of offensive things. Yet he got reelected over and over. 

When he finally ran for mayor in 2010, he got elected then, too. After seven years of left-wing governance that saw higher taxes and a malodorous garbage strike, people wanted lower taxes and less government, and, in a weak field of candidates, Ford was the man who clearly promised to “stop the gravy train.”

Then, as now, it was a pinched time. “We’ve got an economic climate where nobody’s had a raise in seven years, and yet taxes are going up,” says Lorne Bozinoff, the founder of Forum Research, a Toronto-based polling firm that’s been running tracking polls on Ford throughout his term. Every tax hike, every jacked fee, every urban inconvenience became fuel for Rob Ford. When he ran, suburban voters mobilized and flooded the polls. They knew what they were getting: An imperfect man, but one of their own.

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The idea of smaller government and lower taxes is still pretty appealing, in Toronto as elsewhere.

One of the key questions about Ford’s prospects is how big “Ford Nation” actually is. That 40 percent approval rating—which has been remarkably constant over the months of scandal, and shows up in surveys from multiple polling firms—doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Some of that’s for him, but a lot of it is for what it’s doing—that low-tax agenda, privatizing garbage collection, trying to clean up the “gravy train,” and being what people elected him to be,” says Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, which has been polling on Ford.

What’s more, approval ratings aren’t the same as reelection intentions. About 65 percent of Torontonians think he should resign, which means that at least some of them are sitting there, thinking, “He’s done a good job, but the man has gotta go!”

Depending on who you ask, Ford has the hard-core support of between 20 percent and 35 percent of Torontonians. His bedrock support is probably closer to around 20 percent—that’s the number who say they “strongly” feel they’d vote for him, as opposed to being “somewhat” sure. It’s also the number who just can’t be peeled away in various polling scenarios against different hypothetical candidates.

If five Torontonians get stuck in an elevator, and by some freak chance it’s a statistically representative sample (stranger things have happened in this city lately), one of them is going to be a hard-core Ford supporter. He’s probably male, older, and suburban, and Ford is simply “his guy.” He subscribes to Ford’s cult of personality. Rob Ford is the only honest politician, he might tell you. He’s turned this city around and saved it from the socialists. He’s the hardest worker on council and saved taxpayers a billion dollars. Now, none of these things are true, but Ford repeats these lines endlessly, and they have their audience.

A second person in the elevator will be a soft-core Ford supporter. He probably supports Ford’s agenda of lower taxes, small government, and cutting politicians’ perks, and is possibly willing to forgive Ford’s foibles. He looks at Ford’s scandals and says, clearly the guy isn’t perfect, but he doesn’t have his hand in the till and he’s doing what he said he’d do. He’s looking after my property taxes and he did a real number on the unions, and besides, the media is clearly out to get him. 

Meanwhile, the other three Torontonians are forming a human chain to escape through the elevator roof and get the hell out of there. It’s gotten like that around here.

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Even if his bedrock support is as high as 35 percent, that’s still not enough to get reelected. So his chances depend on the usual humdrum election considerations: Who’s running against him? How many ways will they split the vote? Who can mobilize their support on election day?

Ford is unlikely to face a threat from the right. Several right-wingers have announced they’d like to run, but they have a tough row to hoe. “There’s no credible candidate who’s going to out-Ford Ford,” says Bozinoff. It would be like trying to outflank Attila the Hun. 

Meanwhile, Ford looks to be facing a formidable challenge from Olivia Chow, a well-known left-wing federal politician. Chow is a former city councillor herself, and the widow of Jack Layton, a locally beloved politician who rose to become a national party leader before his death in 2011.

More than anything, Ford’s opponents are up against the bizarre logic that has enabled him to ascend and survive—to fail upwards—in the first place.

The scandal around drugs and alcohol has obscured the fact that Ford was not a very effective mayor, even before this particular chaos erupted. He had a strong start, but within a year of taking office, his belligerence and intransigence cost him most of his political support. He was so uncompromising (and so frequently erratic) about cutting taxes and services that his allies fell away; his budget chief quit in disgust; he was stripped of his power over transit and nearly thrown out of office for bull-headedly breaking conflict-of-interest rules. But the fact that he was willing to push for lower taxes to the point of self-destruction (and, ironically, the inability to do anything about them) gives him the ability to own that issue.

What’s more, Ford thrives on persecution, and this scandal has given him plenty. When Toronto’s city council stripped him of every last power that it could in November, it put him in a uniquely advantageous position: Here is a man who can claim to be an outsider, complaining about the actions of a government, all while wearing a chain of office.

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The standard line about Rob Ford is that one must never count him out. For now, the odds are against him. He is an incredibly polarizing figure, and there are more people who want him out than want him in. If the center and left don’t split the vote, he’s toast. Still, an 11-month campaign is dreadfully long, and the unforeseen could always happen.

But the fact that we’re even having this conversation is remarkable: That Ford should be anything other than a dead man walking, with 40 percent of the public willing to even give him the time of day, is staggering. It confronts us again with the question: How many failings are people willing to forgive in a politician whose agenda they support? 

In this respect, there’s none who Ford resembles so much as Bill Clinton. As politicians, Clinton was capable where Ford was calamitous. But where it came to their supporters, both men got embroiled in scandals that reflected personal failings rather than political corruption; both lied until they were caught; both brought disrepute unto their offices, in part by actually doing disreputable things in their offices. (Ford got tanked, among other things.) And their defenders’ responses were similar: Their failings were personal, and I support the good things this man is doing, in the face of vicious political persecution. 

Bill Clinton never had the chance to seek this vindication at the polls. But Rob Ford is about to.