Rob Ford and Conservatives in Toronto

A strange thing is happening in my hometown of Toronto: After a summer of record lows, Rob Ford, our infamous mayor, is seeing an upswing in his poll numbers. If you’re anything like me, then you probably suspect that there’s an interesting trend driving the change. It’s possible to dismiss this as just an insignificant fluctuation as frustrated, disenfranchised voters shift their support between candidates ahead of the late-October election. Even if that’s all it ends up being, there are still a couple of pretty interesting electoral trends that are worth considering, and a pretty counterintuitive fact that underlies it all.

First, the fact: Somewhere between 65–69% of Toronto residents declare an intention to vote centre-right in the mayoral contest. Both Ford and frontrunner John Tory, a former telecom executive and provincial politician, identify as conservatives, while minor candidate David Soknacki is regarded as a centrist fiscal conservative. As a lifelong Toronto resident, let me say that there is no way almost 70% of Torontonians are conservatives, even counting those who would never admit it.

So what’s going on? Polling shows that Rob Ford’s support is high among minority communities and the urban poor. He’s a populist who promises a vague shakedown of the established order (despite being Mayor already) and has crafted an image as a “customer-service” politician. It’s rare to read an article about his supporters in which at least one of them does not tell the story of how he personally came to fix the door or lights of her public housing unit.

That’s the background. It stands to reason, though, that a populist must present himself as the honest everyman; that’s where the appeal lies, especially to dissatisfied voters who don’t like the duplicity inherent in politics. But that is a pedigree that Rob Ford seems unable to claim post-scandals (and there are too many to count).

It’s inescapably true of populist appeals that the politician must offer a deal that’s too good to be true. As is now painfully obvious in Toronto, Rob Ford has not delivered the “respect to taxpayers” he proclaimed, failing to live up to promised savings and sinking billions into an unnecessary subway line. Might voters, then, want to be fooled?