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Rob Ford is deeply unpopular in downtown Toronto -- and that will hurt his re-election chances

Recent polls show that Rob Ford is, as he's been for the last couple of years, incredibly unpopular with downtown Toronto residents. With an election campaign on the horizon, he should be worried about this.

At first blush, it seems fair to assume that Ford shouldn't really care about his downtown support. The shorthand version of the "how Ford got elected" story usually goes like this: progressive downtown was against him, but the suburbs of Toronto liked his conservative message. Ford won because the total population of Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke is bigger than the population of what might be considered "downtown" -- the old pre-amalgamation City of Toronto and the urbanish borough of East York.

But that story is too simplistic. Ford, contrary to popular belief, was not regarded by downtowners as some unelectable villain during the 2010 municipal campaign. A lot of downtown residents actually liked his message, which wasn't so much "suburbs rule, downtown drools" as it was about tweaking a desire to have a mayor who just focused on saving money instead of embarking on elaborate city building projects that, the narrative went, always went over budget and generally made traffic/everything worse.

The reality is that Ford managed to get 29% of the total popular vote in the wards that make up the old City of Toronto and East York. Of the 383,501 city-wide votes that brought Ford to office, 77,173 came from what you could fairly call "downtown." (We can debate endlessly the definition of "downtown" -- I'm just going to use the term as a shorthand for "the old City of Toronto & East York" in this article). Ford, despite running a far more divisive and suburban-focused campaign, actually managed to get slightly more votes in downtown wards than John Tory did as a mayoral candidate in 2003.

In other words, Ford was actually pretty popular downtown. Not as popular as opponent George Smitherman, sure, but popular enough to make a respectable showing -- and popular enough to handily beat the more progressive and urban-minded Joe Pantalone in every ward but one. (Pantalone beat Ford -- but still came second to Smitherman -- in Ward 19, which Pantalone had represented as councillor for years. The margin between Pantalone and Ford was just over 1,000 votes.)

But Ford's checkered record in office -- both on the budget and, you know, with other stuff -- has made a repeat performance in downtown wards impossible. In recent polls by Forum Research, Ford's downtown support in hypothetical races against a variety of opponents was universally bad. His best showing is 22% support, but he only gets to that level in a hypothetical one-on-one race against arch-conservative Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong. That would be kind of like an inverted Sophie's Choice for a lot of voters.

His worst showing comes in a poll about a hypothetical four-way race between Ford, Olivia Chow, John Tory and Karen Stintz. In that configuration, Ford only manages to get 12% support downtown.

These are terrible numbers, and they make Ford's path to victory much harder than it was in 2010.

To illustrate, here are some graphs. The first shows the actual results from the 2010 election, with vote totals divided by area of the city. Again, note that the downtown support was not an insignificant part of Ford's victory.

Now let's travel through a wormhole to an alternate universe where Ford only managed to get 20% of the Toronto & East York vote. That would mean he'd have gotten 22,000 fewer votes. If we distribute those votes roughly proportionally to opponents Smitherman and Pantalone, Ford's margin of victory over Smitherman goes from about 12 percentage points to just seven.

But 20% is actually an optimistic estimation of what Ford might expect to get in terms of his support downtown in 2014. If we take his downtown support down to a hypothetical 12% and redistribute the votes, the 2010 mayoral results look like this:

At just 12% support in Toronto & East York, Ford's landslide victory becomes a squeaker, edging out Smitherman by just a few percentage points city-wide: 42% to 39%.

This all adds up to a huge vulnerability for Ford. An opponent who can nurture a strong downtown base of support and deliver enough votes in the suburbs to prevent Ford from increasing his 2010 levels will have a very good chance of beating him. To do that, I'd suggest jumping on key issues that are sure to win downtown support -- like opposing the expansion of the island airport and closing the door for good on the casino question -- and focus heavily on fair and accurate criticism of the mayor's fiscal record.

The mayor, on the other hand, has got to increase his support in the suburbs even more if he wants to secure a safe path to reelection. That means pandering. If the last election wasn't really about pushing the divide between downtown and the suburbs, this one sure could be.