Views / Toronto / Ford for Toronto

It was a predictable election, now let's change the tone on 'Ford Nation'

You’d be forgiven for thinking there was a late surge of support for mayoral candidate Doug Ford in the run-up to last night’s election, which was boringly won by John Tory.

“It was a closer mayoral race than anyone had predicted, a testament to the strength and loyalty of Ford Nation,” writes the National Post.

Toronto Sun columnist Joe Warmington, as he so often does, takes things a step further. “It was a lot closer than the experts said it would be,” he writes in a column confirming that Rob Ford intends to run in 2018. “In fact, who knows, a couple more weeks and the result could have been different.”

The problem with that kind of talk is that none of it appears to match the data. It's a dull narrative, but the results of last night’s race were what experts had been predicting for months.

However, there is a valid point about the resiliency of Ford Nation, though that term is problematic for a few reasons. More on that in a moment, but first the polling.

The late polls varied a bit ahead of election day, but there was a fair amount of consistency. Éric Grenier’s weighted average of polls at ThreeHundredEight.com projected Tory would finish at 42.8 per cent, Ford at 32.2 per cent and Olivia Chow at 22.2 per cent.

The actual results? Tory at 40.3 per cent, Ford at 33.7% per cent and Chow at 23.2 per cent. Tory won by 6.6 percentage points, which almost exactly matches the final poll released by Mainstreet Technologies on October 24.

Factoring in margins of error and other aspects of polling's dark art, that’s what you’d call a win.

If there actually was a late surge of support, it appears that Chow, and not Ford, reaped the minor benefit. Her campaign was riding a downward trend late in September, with an October 5 Mainstreet poll putting her at 19 per cent. A finish in the mid-teens seemed plausible. But her appeals to progressives not to vote strategically seemed to convince enough voters to provide her with a bit of a rebound.

Mostly, though, the results match the conventional wisdom of a lot of people who have been following Toronto politics over the last four years. Ever since the mayor blew a bunch of his soft support with talk of closing libraries and building a mall on the waterfront in the summer of 2011, Ford support — for both Rob and Doug — has had a hard ceiling of about 35 per cent.

About "Ford Nation"

 Ford Nation is about more than the family who claims to represent them. They are a diverse and passionate group with genuine grievances that deserve to be addressed. (Torstar News Service)

Ford Nation is about more than the family who claims to represent them. They are a diverse and passionate group with genuine grievances that deserve to be addressed. (Torstar News Service)

There was never much chance either Ford could pull more than 35 per cent support. The only real question of the campaign was whether, with vote splits, they could win with that much. As it turned out, the answer was no.

None of this is to diminish Ford’s support. The crowd at last night’s Ford campaign party in Rexdale wasn’t huge by any means, but they were more diverse and more passionate than your average gathering to watch election returns. Yes, there are some sketchy characters and outright hateful people waving Ford signs, but they’re not indicative of most of Ford’s base. And it was clear from their reaction to councillor-elect Rob Ford’s victory speech that his base doesn’t intend to go away.

Nor should we want them to. One of the most distressing things I heard over the last few weeks was talk from people involved in various aspects of the election about how many of Ford’s most passionate supporters weren’t likely to vote anyway. It was almost as some of the people most dedicated to fighting the Fords were finding solace in the idea that youth and low-income people are less likely to engage in the political process.

We shouldn’t accept that, much less celebrate it. Ford Nation — a term I hate because it’s so ridiculously self perpetuating — has become a cult of personality, but most of its roots are in feelings of alienation, not just diehard support for a millionaire family from Etobicoke with a penchant for saying "folks."

If you want to talk about why Ford Nation is still a thing, you have to talk about poverty.  You have to talk about how Toronto has allowed parts of the city with the best transit and the most jobs to become wildly unaffordable for pretty much anyone who didn’t win the privilege lottery. You also have to talk about how there are some politicians who don’t really care about any of this, because the people most affected by the city’s inequality don’t vote anyway.

Just like the election results themselves, the city’s next four years feel predictable. Tory will be a steady presence in the mayor’s office, focusing on business issues and the economy. As an incumbent, he’ll have a virtual lock on re-election, provided he doesn’t antagonize the city’s progressive voters.

Meanwhile, Ford Nation, such as it is, will continue to exist on the periphery. They'll be loud, passionate, alienated and politically inconsequential. Throughout it all, our politicians will continue to talk about the need to be a more united city. But unless the new mayor and council aren’t as predictable as they look, it’ll never really get past the talk stage.

But I’d sure love to be surprised.

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