The Rob Ford Phenomenon

I’m not sure a thorough post-mortem is required for yesterday’s election in Toronto. Much has been written about Rob Ford in recent weeks and it’s fairly easy to understand what happened. It was simply a case of Ford being the right person with the right message at the right time. Politics is usually as simple as that.

But since people usually try to make it a lot more complicated, let’s take a quick look at what this wasn’t a case of.

1. It wasn’t a case of Toronto suddenly becoming more conservative. Calgary has had Liberal mayors for 20 years without electing a single Liberal MP. So I wouldn’t take this as a sign that Stephen Harper or Tim Hudak are about to march to the CN Tower anytime soon. This theory becomes ever shakier when you consider the number of conservative incumbents who were tossed out in favour of Liberals in other Ontario cities.

2. It wasn’t a case of Ford winning by default or because other campaigns messed up. This election was all about Ford from start to finish. If voters truly didn’t want Ford, they had plenty of time to switch their vote to Smitherman. If they didn’t like Smitherman, there was plenty of time for a third candidate to emerge, the way a third candidate emerged (and won) in Calgary when voters were underwhelmed by the two front runners.

3. It wasn’t Joey Pants’ fault. If you look at the numbers, Pantalone wasn’t the difference in this one. Even if he drops out, Ford still wins. And it wasn’t like Ford came out of nowhere – everyone knew that voting for Pantalone meant they were tacitly endorsing Ford for mayor, and they were cool with it.

So what was last night all about? Part of it was the anti-incumbency craze which is sweeping the nation. Toronto voters, especially those in the suburbs, were fed up with waste at City Hall and felt the suburban car crowd was being ignored. Ford played on that sentiment beautifully.

He got his message out early and just kept blabbing about the “gravy train” over and over again like a broken Teddy Ruxpin doll. Most debates I watched went something like this:

What’s your plan for snow removal Mr. Ford?
Stop the gravy train!

In politics, if you get a powerful message, you stick to it. And Ford did just that.

So that’s the “right message, right time” part of the equation. The real question is how on earth an inarticulate hot head who opposes immigration to Toronto and has been charged with everything from drunk driving to spousal abuse could be the “right person”?

Well, for starters, he had credibility on the waste issue due to his track record of not spending from his council expense account. Having the right message isn’t enough if you don’t have credibility on it. Given Smitherman’s track record at E-Health, he wasn’t perceived to have the same level of credibility on this issue as Ford.

Ford also has the rarest of qualities in a politician – he comes across as genuine. Because they saw him as a real person, voters looked past the shaky math and were willing to forgive his many, many, many shortcomings. Ford reminds me more and more of Ralph Klein with each passing day (right down to the incoherent red faced victory speeches), which is why he cannot be underestimated.

I know the common sense is that he’ll be a disaster and will be O’Brien’d in 2014.


But so long as Ford stays true to what got him this far, voters may very well continue to forgive. Ralph Klein had a good run and it’s incredibly presumptuous to assume Ford won’t be around to exasperate us downtown Toronto Liberals for many years to come.

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in 2010 Toronto Muncipal Election

About CalgaryGrit

A former Calgary Liberal, now living in Toronto. My writings on politics can be found at and online at the National Post.

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