The science behind Ford Nation

Julia Belluz asks the experts why Rob Ford has backers — no matter what


Rob Ford bleeds like an ink stain on Toronto, yet his support continues to rise. Why? Unable to come up with an explanation, Science-ish looked to science.

Turns out Torontonians are like most electors. Research on voter behaviour shows that decisions about leaders are not rooted in evidence or actual track records but rather in such factors as gender, age, party affiliation, facial expressions and likability.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Dr. Matthew Baum (PhD) calls these shortcuts and says they are no different from the ones we use to decide where and when to cross the street or what cell phone to purchase.

“People have limited time and they have their priorities,” Baum said. This doesn’t make voters irrational, he cautioned, even those who would still cast a ballot for a crack-smoking mayor. “If they are not that interested in politics, it’s not a very good use of time to learn all the nuances of a candidate. So instead they rely on shortcuts: likeability, the opinions of other trusted elites.”

So the mayor’s conservative rhetoric and everyman appeal might be the shortcuts people rely on when judging him. Still, that doesn’t answer the question of why some Torontonians would not prize other shortcuts—like the fact the mayor smokes crack.

Political psychology research offers some clues. Constituents can be “primed” by political campaigns to vote based on key messages—no matter a politician’s actions. As long as Ford is perceived to be giving people what they want—no tax hikes, “stopping the gravy train”—his poor personal record may not matter at the polls. “If (Ford) is seen as a champion of the working class… delivering the things (people) care about,” Baum added, “the fact that he’s a lunatic in his personal life is much less important.”

That’s probably why Ford’s first line of defence is to cite his record on taxes and the city budget—even if his numbers don’t add up.

Communications expert Dr. Alexandre Sévigny (PhD) had another explanation for the mayor’s popularity. “Framing theory says that an effective mode of persuasion is to focus on the essence of an issue rather than on specific facts,” he said. “There has been consistent framing of the media as ‘liberal’ and willing to stop at nothing to get rid of Ford.” So the mayor’s fans may believe he has been victimized as a result of this framing by the conservative movement.

But at some point, shouldn’t the essence—that the mayor is a big, fat liar—overcome framing and priming?

It didn’t in Washington, D.C. Marion Barry, the notorious former mayor, became more popular as allegations of adultery and crack use mounted. Baum said that it’s because the mayor was viewed as a victim of the establishment. “The more the authorities trashed him, the more wrong-doing he was accused of, the more popular he got.”

For now, whatever happens next in this Toronto circus, Ford’s fate in textbooks is sealed: He’s a case study in how to smoke crack, bully, urinate in public, talk at a press conference about cunnilingus with your wife, consort with gang members, sweat through city events “hammered,” lie on myriad occasions about everything from the existence of the now infamous video to your fiscal record—and stay mayor.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is senior editor at the Medical Post. She is currently on a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reach her at or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto



The science behind Ford Nation

  1. I’ve sometimes wondered if it might be a good thing to include pictures of candidates faces on the ballot, but tone down the saturation level slightly so that they’re a bit washed out. Then include one fake candidate whose picture is that of a model but with full saturation so that it looks better.

    Thus allowing everyone the vote, and allowing those who don’t know what the hell they’re voting for to eliminate themselves from the process.

    • Why bother screening for stupidity? With FPTP and a 3 candidate ballot, a random selection will pick “the winner” 33% of the time. That’s what we should change.

      • I am curious.. exactly what system did you have in mind whereby random selection wouldn’t pick the winner…. well.. at random?

        • In a multi-party or multi-candidate election, FPTP makes no sense. Personally, I go for some form of preferential ballot, so that votes aren’t “wasted” and the winner does achieve above 50% (at least to a certain extent).

          My 2 cents.

          • That was my point, that uninformed voting is irrelevant when we aren’t even sure that we are getting the results that informed voters intended.

          • Except it’s the opposite. With FPTP uninformed voting is hugely relevant because the majority does not decide. All you need is a critical mass of uninformed voters.

          • Well they do show signs of organizing in Etobicoke

  2. “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill

    • Or to update: the election of Rob Ford.

      • LOL I can think of a dozen other elected bozos it applies to as well.

    • “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (Winston Churchill, House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)

      • Up till 1947. When we’d had the worst war the world has ever known.

        • WWII ended in 1945. For someone who fancies herself the resident know-it-all, you sure do make some glaring errors.

          • ‘Nov. 11, 1947’ It’s your quote, pal

            Lose the chip.

          • I’ll give RR a hand here, Events of of November 11, 1947: It was Remambrance day. Churchill made a speech in HoC with his famous democracy quip. Truman started a tradition laying a wreath at the american tomb of the uknonwn soldier. Births: future bassist Brad Lee Sexton, future historian Callum Alexander MacDonald and future rocker Pat “Dirty” Daugherty. What wasn’t going on on that day was the worst war the world has ever known, it ended two years before. now lets get to the heart of the matter. you have a system of governance superior to democracy? A panel of wise people inhabited by enlightened modernists such as yourself maybe?

          • ‘Democracy requires an informed electorate’….you just proved we don’t have that.

          • Ah, I see the problem. You count yourself among the informed. Nothing in any of your 10,000+ comments would lend credance to that assumption. Informed people know better than to assume they know everything. They also know better than to expect others to believe they do.

          • You are so busy trying to be a smart-ass that you have missed the point entirely.

            On that date the world lay in ruins around Churchill….that’s where ‘democracy’ got us. And it was 1947…..light years away from the world we live in now.

            So it is time to rethink the way we do things

          • I’d really like to hear what you recommend instead.

          • Technocracy. AKA Meritocracy.

  3. Related … if you want to get really really depressed, read
    Susan Delacourt’s recent book.

    • I get really depressed whenever I think about Susan Delacourt

      • Reading intelligent journos will do that to you – well, ones like you anyway.

        • No, No little k.
          The depression sets in long before an attempt is made to read her drivel.

          • If she’s depressing the likes of you, then she’s doing her job.

        • Reading intelligent journos will do that to you…

          Pretty much rules out Delacourt. I’ve seen her get so many things back-asswards I gave up on her years ago. I hope her book is better than her columns. Her book is actually an important subject that deserves serious attention, and good on her for taking it on. Hopefully she’ll inspire a serious thinker to give the issue a more thorough examination. I’ll wait for that book.

          • Can you give me an example? I find certain journos do certain things particularly well. Delecourt is good on Liberal stuff, Wells on Harper, Hebert on anything to do with QC. And MDT at the post is someone to watch on Trudeau; Saunders on overseas stuff.
            She may not be in the top 5 or 6 in the country, but i don’t see her as a dud. But then i don’t have a long history of reading her.
            Agree her book is a must read. Hope i get it for xmas.

          • She’s occasionally written on tax issues, and on transfers to individuals (like the CCTB, Working Income Tax Benefit, etc.) – a subject area with which I am familiar. Either she’s gotten some basic concepts wrong, or misconstrued the issues in question. Every time.

          • Ok i can see why you aren’t impressed. But i don’t think that’s where her gifts lie.

      • If you drop the last three words of the sentence then
        it becomes entirely understandable. My sympathies.

  4. Julie rightly noted
    “But at some point, shouldn’t the essence—that the mayor is a big, fat liar—overcome framing and priming?”
    Julie, I agree with you about Ford. Now, let’s try a different version.
    But at some point, shouldn’t the essence – that Justin Trudeau – is an incompetent airhead with vacous arguments but nice hair – overcome framing and priming?”
    The truth about Trudeau being a lightweight is only helping him in the polls; just as the truth that Rob Ford is a “heavyweight” is helping him in the polls.
    Never try and guess what voters are thinking…… in many cases, they simply are not.

    • “But at some point, shouldn’t the essence – that Justin Trudeau – is an
      incompetent airhead with vacous arguments but nice hair – overcome
      framing and priming?”

      Heh. That is the framing and priming.

      • So following your logic:
        You seem to think that Trudeau`s supporters are portraying him as a victim because the conservative media are trying to get rid of Trudeau because they think he is an incompetent airhead with vacuous arguments.
        Better find us a link for that.

        • Better try to get a grasp of what framing and priming means. Might save you begging the question.

          • Julia explains very well the conflict between the media and Ford.
            James wonders when the aiheadedness of Justin will overcome the framing and priming.
            Lenny misses the point as usual.

          • Can’t fault Julia for not explaining it clearly enough for you to grasp.

            ” Constituents can be “primed” by political campaigns to vote based on key messages —no matter a politician’s actions.”

            ” “There has been consistent framing of the media as ‘liberal’ and willing…”

          • Crayon works too.

    • I don’t understand why so many Conservatives are obsessed with Trudeau. Is he really that wonderful? I’m more partial to Megan Leslie, myself.

  5. And these scientists don’t get they we pay too much in taxes and want to pay less? We’re all just stupid people making superficial judgments? Baloney! The want to pay less taxes. They want the government to stop wasting so much and stop the excessive spending. Ford saved Toronto a billion dollars. As soon as he’s out the tax and spend liberals raised the taxes and spend even more for no tangible benefit.

    • Obviously, you have been well-primed.

      • It’s a garbage article. It’s essentially not an actual article, but just more propaganda for the leftist tax-and-spend agenda.
        In fact, propaganda like that article, masquerading as objective analysis (poorly), will actually make people like Ford better.

        • so it’s only propaganda when it comes out of anybody but ford’s mouth, obviously. you don’t want to get caught up in such silly things as facts and analysis, by god. rob promised you the moon and he delivered of course.

          • I commented on the linked article, which is clearly the usual leftist propaganda that would be better suited for a campaign ad.
            Whatever the heck you’re talking about, I have no idea.

        • A) Keenan’s actually pretty even-handed and pretty fair (mostly) covering the Fords
          B) He’s not the only one who’s come to the conclusion that Ford math is from a galaxy far, far, away. The G&M, the Star and even the Sun say the math is bogus
          C) The City Manager, Penachetti, basically concurs with these analyses.
          D) Fraud Nation needs new talking points (Hopefully the poop he flung during his Kaffee Klatsch with the titled ex-con was not some trial balloon for a new message track.)

          • The article states that more spending is better. That’s a political opinion. That’s not analysis.

            It makes ridiculous talking points about whether taxes are paid to the province or the city, when in reality it’s the same taxpayer, the , money could be spent on other things, the money could be returned to the taxpayer or used to reduce fees or used against the mushrooming debt.

            Etc etc etc

            As I said, propaganda like that pushes people to voting for Ford.

            As for the math, it’s always bogus. Let’s take an example: Barack Obama’s affordable care act. Barack Obama claimed health care costs would go down and the deficit would be reduced – obviously completely false from day one. His math was wrong about the numbers uninsured and the numbers that would sign on the exchanges. In fact, every single bit of math every uttered from Obama’s mouth has been false throughout his entire career.

            It’s a matter of who is closer to the truth. Ford’s rhetoric is closer to the truth than the propaganda in that sad excuse for an article.

        • As opposed to the Conservative spend and spend agenda; and pass on the duty to actually pay for the tab to someone else down the line.
          I have respect for a leader who says this is what I want to do and this is how much it will cost you. But that isn’t the Conservative way is it? They much prefer to make a few superficial cuts to the population, huge pay outs to their friends and rack up the debt that they then leave for someone else to sort out. Sidneyspit is a classic example of a “gimme, gimme” Conservative voter who doesn’t like the idea of paying for stuff given.

          • You appear to be auditioning to become a campaign worker. Good luck with that.
            I just finished explaining that I don’t like propaganda, and here you are giving me a heaping load of really silly propaganda.

          • You don’t like propaganda hey?
            yet you spew this boilerplate ” but just more propaganda for the leftist tax-and-spend agenda.” like a good little puppy.
            yeah okay Harper boy, you keep plucking that chicken

    • You forgot to mention the pedophile who was taking pictures of Ford’s kids in his back yard.

    • a) Ford’s claims are wildly exaggerated
      b) None of his policies and initiatives pass without support from council
      c) Therefore, there are competent people on council who can and do effectively save money without buffoonery and without making Toronto a laughingstock.

      Thus, you can have your cake (better fiscal policies) and eat it too (a mayor who isn’t a complete child). IF you take off your blinders.

      • a) Ford’s claims are not “wildly exaggerated” but they are difficult to understand for some people and especially by left wing Ford haters who as a class, suffer from innumeracy. No election campaign by Ford will leave the accomplishments unclarified.

        b) You’re right, Ford is one vote, but Ford has taken control of the narrative and the narrative is overall fiscal responsibility combined with long range rather than short range planning. Rob Ford brings to the table a unique skill set and knowledge that he gained by working in a family business and by being raised by parents who had the extraordinary ability to build a $100 million business from scratch. No one has Rob Ford’s skill set.

        c) Therefore, although the lackys on council are not competent, they couldn’t run a banana stand, but they have known enough to get on board with this loud, boisterous, get the message out Mayor or they will be thrown out of office in due course. There is no competence with this bunch, what drives them is spotless fear.

        The City’s lenders, the bondholders who finance the infrastructure, lowered the City’s credit rating within seconds of Rob Ford being forcefully removed. The Rating Agencies know that the only thing keeping council fiscally responsible is the threat of being individually exposed by Rob Ford.

        The other group that knows this, is the Ford Nation group. The approximately 400,000 people who voted for Rob Ford to clean up a diabolical mess, voted for him to avoid a guaranteed trip to Detroit caused by left wing lunacy. Thesde are the same 400,000 people who were dis-enfranchised by an ignorant, incompetent left wing City Council.

        The Ford message is out and in the public domain. Therefore the tax plundering NDP with their council gallery antics, with their bus-in protesters, with their graffiti artists and their heigh ho Clayton Ruby, are finished in Toronto for a very long time.

        • I call BS on pretty much all the above. You got proof Ford’s numbers are accurate? Let’s see it. Every instance I’ve seen of the numbers being crunched fail to substantiate his claim. And given all the other lies he’s been caught in, you’ll need pretty solid proof before I believe his numbers.

          A example of Ford’s fiscal responsibility: His preference for a subway over a LRT in Scarborough. It will cost more, have fewer stops (making it less practical for users) and will drive up taxes. That your idea of fiscal responsibility? It ain’t mine.

          • Look pie face the day I heard Ford discussing the numbers himself was on his radio program and the finance people from the City were with him. They are not his numbers they come from the City finance people. If you don’t like the fecking numbers call him up. Playtheguitar’s view of the numbers is worthless.

            As far as the subway goes I support him 100% as do the almost 400,000 people who voted for the guy. Get the transit underground where it can’t fall down from salt and ice the way the Gardner is doing. Free up diminishing surface real estate for other important traffic; cars, pedestrians and sub-zero bicycles for the yoyos.

            Transit attracts development, skyscrapers can be built over subway stations and subway routes, skyscrapers generate tax revenue. It’s long term planning, the 40 tax plunderers on council are not capable of conceptualizing long term projects. The Mayor can because he comes to the table with a special skill set.

            Buddy, you have to do your homework because if you do not, wackos promoted well beyond their ability like Gord Perks and Mihevic are ready to steal your tax dollars over and over and over again. And if you let them do it, Toronto will be the next Detroit.

          • ” Toronto will be the next Detroit.” And here I thought we wanted to be Washington, what with our own Marion Barry running things…

            Like I said – back your claim – “heard Rob say it on the radio” doesn’t cut it. I also heard him say he doesn’t do crack and the video doesn’t exist. If Rob’s lips are moving it’s pretty safe to assume he’s lying.

            As to the subway… three stops means people continue to take their cars. We also would not be able to kill any bus routes – so redundant public transit. I work in Scarborough; a good many I work with use transit – and most of those would prefer the LRT.

          • You thought this and you thought that. Who really gives a shirt what you thought. Your mother maybe.

            Everyone else thinks your just another NDP dit.

          • A little early to be into the booze, isn’t it Marmaduke? Let me guess – you’re hangin’ with Rob…

            My stories are as valid as yours, given you ain’t backing yours up. But you know, if acting like a five-year-old is the way you want to go with this, it would be in keeping with your idol – but bear in mind I can do the same. So nyah nyah nyah!!!

          • Poor little Keethy

            Say did you know that your buddy Emily, or Emilechka as we know her, is the love child of Gerda Munsinger and John Diefenbaker. That’s where she gets all her political savy.

    • Jeez, I don’t know why you’d put a picture of a young girl like that next to your name. I don’t want to say that
      word, but you starting thinking you know, what’s this person all about.

  6. The best, most scientific way to find out why Ford Nation backs Ford would be to secretly discover who is voting for him and then beat the crap out of them on the way home from the polling station until they explain why.

    • That’s a dreadful thing to say…but really funny.

    • I agree.
      There must be a gulag somewhere we can send all those people who would dare not to vote for Miller or Smitheram.

      • Neither of them are running, so your point…such as it was….is moot.

      • More like a civics remedial.

      • Old Emily and little k belong together trolling around the pages hoping to come up with a lame response completely void of any sense of irony, humour or common sense.

      • Given where they live already, a gulag would be a step up.

  7. I guess we should be grateful then he has no plans to invade Poland or start a winter campaign in Russia.

    • He’s Kuwait!

  8. Speaking of “framing”, I can hear Mr. Ford now…”But yer Onner…I wuz framed!”

  9. Sooo…. basically what you’re saying, Ms. Belluz, is that everybody on these comment boards is wasting their time.

    955 comments in, and NOW you tell me.

    • You bin framed, primed or something science -ish.

  10. Love your pic of Ford. Time was you’d assume that was taken off a wanted poster.

  11. You know, this continuing popularity of Rob Ford meme seems to be assumed/based on the numbers of one pollster, who happens to be Forum Research. Considering how wrong they’ve been of late in other bits of polling over the past year, I wonder why media folks continue to assume the Forum numbers on Ford are accurate.

    When another pollster or 2 finds the same levels of popularity, then I’ll start wondering about Toronto’s voters.

    • Listen, I don`t have a vote in Toronto and I definitely think there are many other candidates that Torontonians should choose for mayor rather than Ford.

      However, if you guys continue to insult those who prefer a coked-out but fiscally responsible Ford to an arrogant spendee like a Miller, or a Smitheram or a Chow——then guess what—-you`re going to have a Mayor Ford for not one more year but rather 5 more years.

      Do you really think that insulting the stupid voters is good strategy to get them to change their vote.
      What are you ?
      A Liberal ?

      • Trolling around the pages hoping to come up with a lame response completely void of any sense of irony, humour or common sense cawm?

        • You just proved his point.

      • I didnt insult anyone in that comment.. and if you bothered to read some good columnists, the “fiscally responsible” meme Ford tries to sell is not close to true.

        I don’t have to ask if you’re a Conservative/conservative, because I already can tell. Conservatives hate facts.

      • The Cons use this strategy – insulting progressive voters – all the time. Seems to have worked for them – so far.

    • Regardless of what people are telling pollsters, the effective support for Bob and Doug is in single digits. Every yahoo in the GTA claims to support Rob Ford – and there are a lot of yahoos everywhere – but yahoos don’t vote, they don’t donate and they don’t ever follow through on the crap they say they are going to do. That’s what makes them yahoos.

      Rob Ford is a hero to losers, and the one thing you can count on, losers always lose.

  12. Its a sad comment on Fords opponents when hard working Torontonians would rather vote for a self admitted crack smoking drunkard than face the brutal fiscally reckless left-wing alternatives.

  13. These are the same 30% who vote for Harper and the cons,they should be forced to go back to school and learn to think for themselves.

  14. Ford Nation = bored senior citizens (Greeks, Italians) in overwashed jeans, walking aimlessly in shopping malls, discussing the latest Ford blunder in poor English.
    Those who did NOT vote last time will replace the Flooded Brothers in the next election.