Why Rob Ford is still in office, and what might make him resign

November 20, 2013
(The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette/Associated Press)
(The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette/Associated Press)

This is a guest post by University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus.

The scandals involving Toronto Mayor Rob Ford seem never to end—admitted drug use, offensive language, brutish behavior.  How is it possible he is still in power?  And what might push him to resign?

In a forthcoming article, I investigate what makes it more or less likely for politicians to survive scandals.  I examined 126 scandals involving U.S. gubernatorial and presidential administrations from 1972 to 2011, charting the duration of each scandal and looking at the factors that hastened the end of each official’s career (through resignation or termination).  Although these scandals obviously involved different offices in a different country, they may help explain why Ford may be able to hold on to power for longer than expected.  Here are three key factors.

First, elected officials themselves, as opposed to appointees, nominees or staff, are more likely to survive a scandal.  Given the complicated (or, in Toronto, non-existent) procedures for removing an elected official from power, and the general reluctance to take these extreme actions, high-ranking elected officials are more likely to survive their scandals.  These politicians are also less likely to resign, seemingly obeying the Matthew Yglesias strategy for survival.  Perhaps they believe that their election conveys a sort of mandate to remain in office.

Second, although we might expect popular politicians to better survive scandals, popular approval actually has no effect on protecting executives from the damage.  So although Ford’s approval ratings are quite low, this may not matter.  Politicians may discount current opinion, figuring things will only improve if they stay in office.

Third, although personal scandals (as opposed to financial scandals) help sink careers of national executives, they have a less consistent effect at the state level.  Ford’s latest bizarre actions and behavior might be less consequential because he does not hold a national office.

So what might prod Ford to resign?  I find that scandals are more likely to end a politician’s career when they face significant legislative opposition.  This suggests the importance of the Toronto City Council’s move to reduce the Ford’s powers and budget, and thus his capacity to govern.  This is what may ultimately shorten Ford’s eventful time in office.

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