Toronto mayor Rob Ford reacts as he speaks to his supporters during his campaign launch in Toronto on Thursday, April 17. The mayor stands a good chance of winning re-election, say political observers, though it's possible challenger Olivia Chow will cause the other candidates to split the centre-right vote. Nathan Denette/Canadian Press
Drunken stupors, ill-advised TV interviews and lewd public statements notwithstanding, Rob Ford is no political nitwit.
It would be foolish for voters to think so of Toronto’s chief magistrate, say political observers, who argue the mayor’s effectively crafted populist image could carry him through to re-election in October despite a year blighted by scandal.
"He has admitted to behaviour that would have sunk any other politician long before now. He manages to connect and keep a base of support for a variety of reasons, including his single-minded messaging around holding the line on taxes. That is a message that resonates," said Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson University.
"Then there’s the celebrity factor," he added.
Even if that infamy is due to "transgressions" — notably Ford’s admission that he smoked crack cocaine — Siemiatycki said "there is a celebrity wonder factor" at play.
'Power of forgiveness'
That, along with "remarkable powers of forgiveness" on the part of the Toronto electorate, could be enough to lift Ford above challengers Olivia Chow, John Tory, Karen Stintz and David Soknacki, he said.
The mayor of North America’s fourth-largest city formally launched his re-election campaign yesterday, praising "the spirit of second chances." Two days earlier, the latest Forum Research poll positioned Ford in second place (with 27 per cent support) trailing Chow, the front-runner (with 34 per cent support).
"In the last year we’ve been polling, [Ford] has been pretty consistent," Forum Research president Lorne Bozinoff said, noting the mayor’s support has remained in the 20s, even after Chow entered the race.
"Right now Ford is seven points away from her. Winning isn’t insurmountable with 200 days left to go in the campaign," he said.
Even so, Bozinoff foresees a scenario in which Chow, as the sole challenger who is seen to be left of centre, rallies a liberal base while her more conservative rivals neutralize each other’s chances.
"She is the united left candidate, so she’s got the left to herself and the right seems to be split four ways," Bozinoff said. "Common sense would tell you the four on the right would have a harder time than the one person on the left."
Marcel Wieder, a political consultant in Toronto, believes Ford would win, "if the election were held tomorrow."
The Toronto-based strategist and president of Aurora Strategy Group said the latest Forum poll may be favouring Chow, "but when you talk to a number of political campaign people, they see Rob Ford as being the favourite."
Rob Ford blue-collar 'myth'
He pointed out that Ford holds strong support in Toronto's suburbs, namely Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough.
“Where he’s very weak is in the old city of Toronto and East York and York. However, there are more voters in Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough than in the old city of Toronto, East York and York,” he said.
Image-making is a big part of Ford’s mayoral game plan, Wieder said, and shedding pounds could go a surprisingly long way towards convincing taxpayers that a slimmer Ford is a changed man.
During an appearance earlier this month on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Ford claimed he lost several pounds.
"We all like to see a redemption story," Wieder said. "It’s Easter time, redemption and resurrection are common themes, people support that. If he goes to the gym, loses 50 pounds, if he stays off the booze and the drugs and says, ‘Look, I’m a new man,’ [voters] may look at him and say if he changed this way, he must have changed on the other fronts as well."
Anyone doubting the mayor’s political savvy need only consider how he has successfully cast himself as a blue-collar everyman despite his millionaire family’s roots, said Robert Drummond, a political science professor at York University.
"There’s a myth about what he stands for, as somebody who portrays himself as one of the regular folks," he said.
Siemiatycki said Ford seems to have tapped into a sense of alienation that citizens feel when it comes to the political system.
"So if there’s an image of some politician seen having a direct one-to-one relationship to voters, that strikes a chord," he said.
When Ford hands out his phone number and pledges to answer calls that comes into his office, that makes an impact.
"People…feel that’s the kind of political leader they want, who, if I have an issue, I’m just going to pick up the phone and he’ll be at my doorstep," Siemiatycki said.
A simple message
Another plank of Ford’s effectiveness seems to be the simplicity of his platform, according to Drummond.
"If it’s saying, 'subways, subways, subways,' or 'I saved a billion dollars,' people understand that, even if the statement is fundamentally wrong," he said.
While Ford’s challengers may tangle in trying to discredit the $1-billion claim or explain complex policy measures, the mayor’s tax-saving crusade is clear.
"They feel like they know what he stands for," Drummond said.
Ford’s rivals, meanwhile, must ask themselves if their campaigns can be explained as easily.
Whatever the case, this will not be like the last election, said Dennis Pilon, an associate professor of political science at York University.
When Ford won with 47.1 per cent of the vote in 2010, Pilon noted, he was elected by a coalition of voters, not just his hardcore "Ford Nation" supporters.
"A significant part of the coalition weren’t the angry, populist types. They were just run-of-the-mill conservatives who wanted lower taxes," he said, adding he suspects many of those people will be driven towards Tory come October.
Wieder, the strategist, said there’s plenty of time to speculate with nearly half a year to go until election night.
"We’re only one-third of the way to this election," he said. "We have close to 100 candidate debates between now and Oct. 27, and six months is an eternity."