Why They Love Rob

The science behind Ford’s strong support

by Ashleigh Mattern

Rob Ford - photo courtesy West Annex News

Rob Ford is not a stand up guy. The crack-smoking, drunk-driving Toronto mayor has been accused of verbal and physical abuse of employees, sexual harassment, giving jobs to friends at higher pay than other staff members, and regularly having (publicly paid) staff run errands, like buying him alcohol and picking up his dry cleaning.

Despite all these allegations (and more), there is still support in Toronto for Ford. The most recent polls from Forum Research, conducted by telephone on Nov. 20, say 42 per cent of Toronto voters approve of the job Rob Ford is doing as mayor. Though, notably, 60 per cent of voters still want Ford to resign.

The survey was a random sampling among 1,049 voters, taken the day after council limited his powers as mayor. Results of the survey are considered accurate plus or minus three per cent, 19 times out of 20. (What the hell does that mean? Check out the sidebar!)

Can science explain why anyone supports this man?

The study of politics is not a science in the way biology or chemistry is a science. In fact, Daniel Béland, Canada Research Chair in Public Policy, says using the word “science” in relation to political studies is debated.

Still, there are facts and truths behind the “why” (dear God, why?!) people still support Rob Ford.

Béland says to understand Rob Ford’s supporters, you first have to look at the recent history of the City of Toronto. In 1998, the Ontario government amalgamated Old Toronto, East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and York into one megacity, despite opposition from the municipalities and rejection in a municipal plebiscite.

“People are, in a way, alienated,” said Béland, who is a political sociologist by training. “They don’t recognize themselves in downtown Toronto, or the City of Toronto. They feel that they lost control over their own municipal life.”

Enter Rob Ford: a populist politician, on the side of the suburbanites. Not one of the elites in the big city, just a regular guy from Etobicoke. Ford framed the problem as “us versus them,” the ordinary people in the suburbs versus the elite in Toronto.

The people in the suburbs don’t want their money going to Old Toronto; they drive downtown, so they don’t want the city spending money on more public transit, bicycle infrastructure, and bus lanes.

“Rob Ford has played on this regional discontent,” says Béland.

He compares Ford’s approach to the populist Reform Party (“The West Wants In”) when the economy was moving west but the political power was staying in central Canada.

“What Rob Ford is doing is the same thing, but at a local level, a municipal level,” he says.

Populism is a tried and true political technique. It’s the good people versus the bad elite. It’s loud and hyped up. Rob Ford is going to stop the gravy train! He’ll stop the councillors from stealing your money! He saved you a billion dollars! (Even if it’s hard to actually say exactly how he saved that money.)

Ford has the perfect personality for a populist approach to politics.

“The types of politics he’s using makes it easier for him to be obnoxious,” said Béland. “He’s the guy fighting for the little guy. These people are so oppressed, the end justifies the means. Because the end is to fight the nasty elite, he has to be nasty himself. He’s a fighter, and he’s fighting for you.”

He’s also fighting the mainstream, and even before the shit hit the fan, he accused the mainstream media of being against him. When the scandals broke, the reaction from the media was basically a prophecy fulfilled, and therefore something his supporters could explain away.

Béland points out that Ford has been much more quiet over the past few weeks, which might be the only strategy he can adopt right now if he wants to win the municipal election 10 months from now.

And he still has a chance to win; 33 per cent of Toronto voters say they will vote for Ford in 2014, according to the survey from Forum Research.

It remains to be seen whether keeping quiet will help. We can all rest assured media outlets are working hard to dig up more dirt. Already, the CBC reported on Dec. 4 that police wiretaps suggest he may have also used heroin.

As we wait to see how this unfolds, at least we can enjoy the jokes and spoofs about Rob Ford coming from our American neighbours.

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THE SCIENCE OF SURVEYS

What does it mean when we say things like “results of the survey are considered accurate plus or minus three per cent, 19 times out of 20”?

The “plus or minus three per cent” is the margin of error, meaning the number of people who support the job Rob Ford is doing as mayor falls into a range of 39 to 45 per cent.

And “19 times out of 20” means the answer is correct 95 per cent of the time, or to put it another way, every 20th time, you’re going to get a wrong answer.

Loleen Berdahl, project leader for the survey and focus group research facility at the University of Saskatchewan Social Sciences Research Labs, says the science and art of polling is always increasing its accuracy, but we still need to be critical consumers of this information.

Berdahl says a trustworthy poll should include the following:

  • A margin of error under five per cent.
  • Information about how the sample was collected. (Telephone surveys are the gold standard.)
  • Information about who was polled.
  • The wording of the question.
  • When the question was asked.

/Ashleigh Mattern

2013-12-12