Don’t get me wrong — I’m no fan of Rob Ford. In fact, let me declare a small bias up front: I consider our incumbent mayor a repugnant, vicious, bullying thug.
But after 40 years of reporting on, analyzing, strategizing within and dissecting municipal, provincial and federal elections, I see a perfect storm brewing — a unique set of four factors that points toward the re-election of our chief reprobate.
I would dearly love to be wrong. But when I share my disturbing outlook with friends and colleagues, most of them ardent social progressives and realistic fiscal conservatives, they think it through, hang their heads and mutter through clenched teeth that I’m probably right.
Factor one is the entrenchment in western culture of politics as a spectator sport. It’s been an American thing for decades — since actor Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1967, followed generations later by pro wrestler Jesse Ventura in Minnesota in 1999 and action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger in California in 2003, cartoon-character candidates with off-the-scale name recognition have been tough to beat in single-candidate elections like a mayoralty race. A name sufficiently burned into the public mind can turn a stuffy election into a really fun game, a phenomenon best captured by an Arnie voter who famously told CBC: “Why am I voting for him? I just want to see what happens.”
Are Toronto voters that callow and naive, that disrespectful of their franchise? I’ll go out on a limb and say Yes . . . more than a few of them.
This year, Hollywood and Jimmy Kimmel have helped Ford become a larger-than-life celebrity, adding to his already remarkable levels of awareness and familiarity, attributes that consistently drive ballot choices. It’s having an effect. The latest Forum Research polls show Ford with a late-summer baseline of some 32 per cent of the decided vote, after everything he’s put us through. To a significant portion of our electorate, celebrity and notoriety blend into a single positive criterion for mayoral electability.
Factor two: today’s news coverage is driven by Google hits, not carefully considered editorial choices or, heaven forbid, balance and fairness. In February, serious-minded (and then fifth-place) candidate David Soknacki held a news conference on a condo-lined street a block from city hall to lay out his reforms to the Land Transfer Tax. In a pre-emptive strike, Ford’s campaign-manager brother Doug told the city hall press gallery the mayor would be visited at the same hour by magician David Blaine to do card tricks. Three reporters (including one from the Star, to its credit) attended Soknacki’s event; the rest swarmed the mayor’s office where Blaine was a no-show.
“Yeah, that was something of a low point for the press gallery,” a Star reporter told me, but his criticism is misplaced. Today’s media owners demand content that generates search engine hits, substantive public discourse be damned. In this climate, Ford has monopolized the headlines, set the agenda and been the story of the 2014 election campaign, even when locked in rehab. The metrics that drive today’s news media are not about to change, much to the incumbent’s benefit and the exasperation of other candidates trying to be serious, build profile, gain traction and genuinely improve the city.
This context fosters factor three, an election campaign that stands to become a referendum on Rob Ford’s character and suitability for office. In a normal world, the next two months would be the time to debate the complex issues that will determine Toronto’s future, weigh policy approaches and assess options, and pick the leader most capable of implementing his or her platform of priorities and plans. But Toronto’s new normal is a cartoon campaign covered by media fearful of missing a Ford-centric beat, focused intently on what he’ll do next. Candidates who persist in treating this as a battleground of ideas face obscurity.
But the tidal wave in this fall’s perfect storm is factor four — the potential appeal of a “reformed” Rob Ford. Doug Ford is a cunning strategist; he can read these tea leaves, too. His candidate brother can deliver his lines and execute, not suavely, but with great impact and effectiveness.
If the Fords put the mayor forward as a contrite, changed person who has learned a lesson from everything he’s been through, the conditions are in place for him to cobble together enough votes to prevail over John Tory and Olivia Chow on Oct. 27.
This approach would consolidate and galvanize Ford’s core vote, while reaching out to a significant number of voters who have turned away from the mayor but who would look at a “reformed” Ford and feel that if they were in his shoes, they too would want a second chance. It’s a powerful message, one that could even appeal on the left to progressives who believe in the principle of rehabilitation, and on the right to conservatives who, disgusted as they may be by Ford’s shenanigans, believe deeply in personal redemption.
This approach would be a nightmare for the other candidates. Everything in the tool box they could throw at Ford, from character-based attacks to careful accounting of his misstatements and failures, would become counterproductive and strengthen Ford’s position that he’s been made better by his experience.
I know strategists in the camps of each of Ford’s challengers. They’re not sleeping well these nights. The monster under their beds is a Ford campaign that weaves together the threads of this perfect storm, produces and delivers a persuasive narrative, and does the unthinkable: wins re-election for the mayor in resounding fashion.
Dan Rath is a Toronto research and communications consultant.