Two reasons to question the new Rob Ford polling

Why the data is mostly a mirage

Mark Blinch/Reuters

Here’s some surprising news that might shake you from your cold-induced hibernation: According to the Toronto Sun, new polling collected by Forum Research shows that divisive Mayor Rob Ford has actually improved in the eyes of Torontonians, with the recent is-it-or-isn’t-it crisis of an ice storm giving Ford an approval bump of five per cent.

The numbers may be further fuel for the lampooning Toronto has received from the late-night talk-show circuit, hinting at the possibility that Ford Nation may yet prevail in the upcoming city election, with crack-use admissions and other wild allegations not affecting the ardor held for the man by a certain swath of the city. However, there are two major reasons Canadians should look past the headlines and see the data as mostly a mirage.

1. The polling comes after #icestormTO.

Here’s the reality of any weather-based crisis: any politician, even one on auto-pilot, can come out looking rosy. With cameras flashing and media clamouring for answers, a weather crisis provides an easy opportunity for any politician to stand at a dais and look like they’re holding the hands of the afflicted.

In the U.S., then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie rode their effective managing of crisis situations to meaningful presidential runs. Even New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin found himself with enough popularity to get himself re-elected shortly after his widely slammed handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Naheed Nenshi’s handling of the floods in Calgary affirmed his popularity and iced his subsequent re-election.

Even though Ford’s press conference was maligned in some circles for a perceived complaint of his family needing to find a hotel and for the possibility of his playing politics over calling a state of emergency, it would have taken a gaffe of fairly massive proportions to not expect a slight hike for Canada’s most notorious mayor. Not only that, but it’s become clear that Ford did not have major pull during that crisis. The province instead worked directly with deputy mayor Norm Kelly, meaning Ford had all the more time to do what he does best: offer help, for all appearances, to the little guy.

2. Rob Ford’s electability rides on disapproval, not approval, numbers.

Another reality: the election is really, really far away. Ten months doesn’t feel like that long, but all the prospective polls have been including names like John Tory and Olivia Chow and we don’t even know if they’re running yet. If the surprise rise of David Miller (or Rob Ford, for that matter) is any indication, this race is going to look very different even by April.

That said, Ford faces a tougher climb than others because, even when he was first elected, to the chagrin of many in the downtown core, the crack use and the other allegations have only served to catalyze those who dislike him—bad news for any politician seeking election. After his November admission to drug use in a drunken stupor, an Ipsos-Reid poll found that 62 per cent would not vote for Ford “under any circumstance,” a number that has gone down—as any such number would, once the reaction to such a bombshell admission mellowed out—but not by a whole lot. In a mid-December follow-up poll by Ipsos-Reid, 61 per cent of people would not even consider voting for Ford. And even in this optimistic poll, by a pollster that has proven to be a bit kinder to Ford than others, a full 54 per cent still said straight-up that they would not vote for Rob Ford. That means, in a campaign that so far features at least two announced candidates espousing the same kind of fiscal-conservative agenda as he does (and, in Tory, a possible third), there is only 46 per cent of the vote he can meaningfully win.

That’s a pretty low ceiling, a thin margin in an already crowded field that doesn’t provide much breathing room for campaign missteps or swing-voter seduction. At the Torontoist, David Hains makes the same argument, with this statement: “In order to win in 2014, Ford will need to win over some people who right now say they would not consider voting for him, or win an extremely high percentage of those who say they would consider it. This appears unlikely.”