What Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor can teach us about political science

November 6, 2013

Toronto mayor Rob Ford has admitted to smoking crack while in office. He's endured a stream of stories all year about his substance abuse and erratic behavior. The major Toronto papers have called on him to resign. Yet he remains surprisingly popular — and refuses to step down. Last week, his approval rating even appeared to rise to 44 percent.*

(Frank Gunn / Associated Press)
(Frank Gunn/Associated Press)

How is this possible? I talked to Dennis Pilon, a political scientist at York University in Toronto, who did his best to explain the ins and outs of local Canadian politics to me and offered up a whole bunch of insights on how political science can help explain Ford's electoral success.

Brad Plumer: Okay, to someone not well-versed in Canadian politics, explain how a mayor as scandal-ridden as Rob Ford became so popular.

Dennis Pilon: I think there are a couple of interesting trends here, some Toronto-specific, some more general. More broadly, we've seen politicians both in the United States and Canada push the boundaries of what is seen as acceptable behavior by politicians. In Washington, D.C.. you had Marion Barry come back onto the city council [after being imprisoned on drug charges]. In the mayor's race in New York City, for a time it looked like [Anthony Weiner] might come back from his problems — at least until even more sexting scandals emerged.

So this isn't entirely unique to Toronto. There are changing public mores that have influenced what’s going on.

BP: That's fair. But what are the Toronto-specific factors that explain Ford's success?

DP: Specific to Toronto, what we see with Rob Ford is a kind of broader populist alienation that he’s benefitted from. One thing that's important here is that in Canada, party politics isn't as strong on the local level — or at least party labels don't hold as strongly. In the United States, voters will recognize Democratic and Republican labels even at the local level, but in Canada that's less common.

So that muddies the water. We do find distinct differences in Canada between liberal and conservative voters. But in most elections, they often use parties as a kind of marker where they fall. At the local level, the lack of parties prevents voters from identifying cues that might make their voting more disciplined. So that makes elections more volatile.

And then voter turnout is often extremely low at the local level. So that means the electorate can change dramatically from election to election. And Ford benefitted from both of those trends.

BP: Wait, why are party labels so weak at the local level?

DP: In Canada cities tend to be the creatures of their provinces. They're very dependent on transfers from the provincial government. So there's a difficulty in extending party politics to the local level, because that can come into conflict with the provinces. There's actually a rule that parties aren't allowed to run on a local level in Toronto, although you still see this in other cities too.

Now don't get me wrong, there are definitely politics at the local level, some candidates are left-wing, some are right-wing. And the machines that turn out votes are often the same. And municipal politicians often graduate into specific parties. But the labels aren't usually there as a tool for mobilizing the public.

BP: That's all interesting from a political-science perspective. So how does this explain Rob Ford's rise?

DP: In Toronto, we had a situation where a left-of-center mayor [David Miller] who was elected with support from downtown Toronto [in 2002]. What's important here is that Toronto was forcibly amalgamated, the suburbs, which are right-of-center, were forcibly joined to the downtown area. So the election of that left-wing mayor was seen as a great victory for the city of Toronto.

But that mayor ran into a number of problems that really discouraged his base. A big one was the garbage strike. That had the effect of angering and mobilizing a lot of voters who might not have paid as much attention to politics before.

So you had Rob Ford riding this crest of populist anger against downtown urban elites. He also benefited from a number of other smaller actions — a lot of the other candidates dropped out [in the 2010 election]. And he has this particular group of supporters, who people like to call "Ford Nation." This is a group of voters who are mad as hell, and check off a lot of the same populist boxes you see in the U.S. — angry at taxes, frustrated with government regulations, who see city workers as overpaid, that kind of stuff. And he's tapped into that palpable anger.

The garbage strike probably woke a lot of people up to city politics. It was a double whammy. It left a bloc of centrist and left-wing voters discouraged and fired up a group of angry populists who were motivated to vote. And Rob Ford, who was on the city council and seen as a buffoon, suddenly rushed into the mayor’s office. He didn't get a majority, but he got 47 percent of the vote.

BP: And are there ways he's been effective as mayor?

DP: He did manage to follow through on one of his big promises — he did privatize some of the garbage collection in the west side of the city, where his roots are. He was successful at that.

But on other things he hasn't been quite as successful. He always claimed there was this "gravy train" through City Hall. When he was on the council he refused to spend any of the budget that members get to fly around or pay for things. He’d famously put in a bill for $4 rather than claiming the money. But when he got into office, he started an investigation, and it came back saying that Toronto was run pretty well, there wasn't a lot of waste, so not much gravy.

Other than that, his tenure has been one damned thing after another. He's not a diplomatic fellow. There are many examples of gaffes. There's consistent bad behavior, drunken behavior.

BP: So how is this allowed to go on?

DP: One key aspect of this is that Toronto has a weak mayor system. The City Council can overrule the mayor on issues, and the mayor has no real power beyond one vote on the council. He does have a few other independent powers, but this is not the American model of the strong mayor.

If you had a strong mayoral system and the mayor wasn't functioning, everything would grind to a halt. But in Toronto, the Council can handle things. The bureaucracy can run the day-to-day operations. So the stakes are lower.

BP: Are there other aspects of Ford's tenure that have been interesting from a political science perspective?

DP: To me as a political scientist, it's been interesting to see how people have reacted to Rob Ford’s ability to just keep bulldozing through various scandals. Other politicians might be embarrassed or even resign, but Ford has discovered that you can just keep pushing and no one can stop you.

Unless he’s charged with criminal offense, he can't be removed from office. He knows this, and he's kept pushing through. And as a result, his approval numbers have gone even higher among Ford Nation.

Many aspects of that are telling. The profile of Ford Nation is a good indication of our political times. There are these alienated populist voters who are often just lashing out. They're typically not well-integrated into political system, not well integrated into their communities. They tend to not have as much money as median voter and aren't always as informed on the details of politics.

So one of the things they do is that they end up identifying with politicians personally. So part of Rob Ford’s appeal is that he does make a lot of mistakes, he does speak improperly. And when his critics attack him, that just reinforces the support among alienated populists who also feel that they don't always speak properly, that they make mistakes.

In the U.S. there was a somewhat similar dynamic that was often attributed to George W. Bush. The more that the New York Times criticized him for misspeaking or whatnot, that bolstered his support. And, again, sometimes these dynamics are mitigated by party labels — people might say, oh I'm not a conservative, I can't support that candidate. But in the absence of party labels, people from all over the spectrum end up identifying with those candidates.

 BP: Could he get reelected?

DP: A number of commentators say he could get reelected. I’m not as convinced. Ford Nation is an unreliable electorate. And his appeal is mainly with traditional right-of-center voters. But he's also not a very effective advocate of right-of-center policies and issues. Right now, when he takes issues to the City Council, many of them are failing, because the council doesn't want to be aligned with someone so unpredictable.

Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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* Note: Though, to be fair, that five-point rise last week could well just be a blip in polling. Here's a deeper analysis of Ford's poll numbers at ThreeHundredEight.com (the Canadian version of Nate Silver's election site).

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