Rob Ford is not a stand up guy. The crack-smoking, drunk-driving Toronto mayor has also been accused of verbal and physical abuse of employees, sexual harassment, giving jobs to friends at a higher pay than other staff members, and regularly having (tax-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. A poll from Forum Research, conducted by telephone on Nov. 20, said 42 per cent of Toronto voters approved of the job Rob Ford was doing as mayor. Though, notably, 60 per cent of voters still wanted Ford to resign.
The survey was a random sampling among 1,049 voters, 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 heck does that mean? Check out the science of surveys at the bottom of the page!)
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, Dr. 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 provincial 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 Canada’s populist Reform Party (“The West Wants In”), when the economy was moving west, but the political power was staying in Ontario. “What Rob Ford is doing is the same thing, but at a local level, a municipal level.”
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.
Ford was running in the municipal elections in Toronto, set to take place Oct. 27, but on Sept. 12, he dropped out of the race, citing illness.
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 U of S 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 have:
- 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.
This article was originally published in Planet S Magazine on 12 Dec. 2013.