For a politician who built his career on populist rhetoric and pandering, Mayor Rob Ford is desperately unpopular.
Don’t fight me on that point. It’s not really disputable. Sure, you could point out that Ford’s approval rating—which has been at about 42% since last fall, with a couple of minor peaks and valleys—isn’t too far off the 47% of the popular vote he scored in the 2010 election, but that’s not a great argument. By default, sitting municipal politicians always poll pretty well. David Miller polled above 80% a year into his first term, nearly doubling the popular vote percentage he secured versus John Tory and Barbara Hall in 2003.
It wasn’t until garbage literally started stinking up city parks that Miller fell well below 50% approval. Ford, on the other hand, hit that mark less than eleven months into his term. Last October, he was named the second most unpopular big city mayor in Canada.
Since then, Ford’s numbers haven’t moved much, but ongoing polling on municipal issues by Forum Research still provides good insight into Ford’s waning influence over the city and his chances of reelection come 2014. Plus, the data lends itself to cool charts.
Here are three interesting and illustrated takes on Ford’s popularity numbers.
1. Ford Nation is tiny but real
When the mayor first took office, he held up the existence of “Ford Nation” as a potential weapon against those who opposed him. The Nation was said to be made up of a significant percentage of voters who were so enamoured with the Ford brand of politics that they would rise up and stand against anyone who refused to work with Ford.
Ford famously threatened to sic the horde on Dalton McGuinty after the premier refused to play ball with the new mayor’s demands. But the Nation didn’t show up when it came time to vote in the provincial election—McGuinty’s government easily held their base in Toronto.
We haven’t heard much about Ford Nation since, but polling data points to a lingering truth about this so-called silent majority: they actually exist. But not as a majority.
In fact, Ford hasn’t enjoyed majority support in this city since June 2011. A series of blunders last summer, starting with the Core Service Review and extending through the waterfront debacle, saw him shed about 20 points of popular support. And there’s no sign that support will ever return.
Still, the mayor seems to have settled at about 60% disapproval, allowing for some margin-of-error dips and bumps. Which means that about four-in-ten Torontonians are predisposed toward approving of Ford’s policies. Taking into account that some of that is soft support won’t translate to actual votes, I’d peg the actual hardcore Ford vote at about 25%-30% of the city population.
In other words: it’s probably safe to say that about one-in-four Torontonians are diehard supporters of Rob Ford. That’s Ford Nation.
2. Barring a major shift, Ford will lose in any one-on-one mayoral race in 2014
Forum seized on rumours that NDP MP Olivia Chow might be considering a run for the mayor’s chair, polling their sample to get a sense of how she would do against the mayor.
In summary: she’d destroy him.
Not only does the poll show a whopping 24-point gap between Ford and Chow, it also indicates that a significant chunk of those who currently approve of the mayor’s performance would actually vote against him in a one-on-one race. (This result actually lends credence to the idea that some Ford voters saw him as a Jack Layton-like figure in 2010.)
I still don’t believe Chow is all that likely to run, but these kinds of results should hold generally true for any left-of-centre candidate who mounts a competent campaign and doesn’t run into issues with vote-splitting. The song remains the same: having chased off a lot of the centrist support that once enthusiastically backed him, Ford is left with a very tiny base that can’t withstand a serious challenge.
3. Downtown Toronto is an important battleground
In the 2010 election, Ford beat Smitherman by about 100,000 votes, securing 47% of the popular total. Notably—and despite routinely hinting that downtown Toronto is made up of a bunch of socialist whiners—Ford wound up receiving support from more than 70,000 people in Toronto & East York.
If about 50,000 of the downtown votes that went to Ford had instead gone to George Smitherman, Ford would have lost the entire election in a squeaker.
As much as they may want to focus their energies on suburban issues, the Ford campaign can’t ignore the city core and expect to easily secure reelection. The votes downtown matter.
The effect would have been even more pronounced had Ford not benefited from a split vote scenario in 2010. Had his two major opponents merged to become a single, medium-sized, even-keeled candidate—call him Jorge Pantherman—Ford would have been trounced by a two-to-one margin in the old city and East York.
And Ford’s downtown approval numbers are, not surprisingly, terrible. He’s been mired around 30% since nearly the beginning, which sets him up to get totally steamrolled by a competent opponent. The divide-and-conquer approach, pitting Toronto’s suburbs against the downtown core, was really a once-in-a-lifetime political gambit.
What it all means
The mayor’s office should be worried. Yes, they have a lot of time before the election in 2014, but they can’t afford to wait much longer. Ford needs to take steps to implement some sensible, effective policies that can win back some of the voters he alienated last summer and help him hold on to the lonely members of Ford Nation who call downtown home. Given the challenges associated with the Rob Ford brand and the mayor’s dwindling number of council allies, this is not going to be an easy thing to do.
Still, it beats the alternative. Waiting around and hoping your would-be opponents screw up badly enough to hand you the election isn’t a strategy that’s likely to work. Not again, anyway.