James: This mayoral campaign has been a race like no other

October 13, 2010


Royson James

It didn’t take much political smarts to figure out that the guardians of the city would feel compelled to rally around one candidate to stop the candidacy of Rob Ford.

But only the truly wise imagined that Ford would be portrayed as the most fearsome force in Canadian politics today and that voters would be stampeded into abandoning all their principles to stop the marauding mastodon from the suburb.

Yes, I called Ford a barbarian — but you know I meant that in the cultural sense. And that was by way of introduction back in the spring when it was inconceivable that Ford could stay on message for eight hours, much less eight months; or that he could stand toe-to-toe and debate deputy premiers and corporate executives; or that he and his suburban pointy heads could use sophisticated election technology and methods to reach voters.

Then, a poll conducted late last month revealed Ford had a 24-point lead on George Smitherman, the candidate who led in January by some 27 percentage points. Ford entered in March and was soon in a strong second.

And the media, opinion leaders and intelligentsia panicked.

Soon, the rise of the angry councillor from the suburb became the “Ford phenomenon.” He was Canada’s Sarah Palin. Provincial premiers were supposedly watching and worrying about how his popularity might play out in their own electoral fortunes. Federal party hacks, even, were taking notice as the blustery fellow graced the cover of national publications.

Candidate Joe Pantalone likened Ford to Attila the Hun, the barbarian that plundered Europe in the 5th century — all because Ford proposed saving $1.7 billion from the city budget over four years, through attrition and a 2 per cent budget squeeze.

Today we have results of the latest poll from Ipsos Reid, and Smitherman, not Ford, leads by one percentage point — a statistical dead heat — 31 to 30. Pantalone — he got a 1 per cent bump from Mayor David Miller’s endorsement — trails badly at 11 per cent and Rocco Rossi, at a dreadful 4 per cent of decided voters, quit Wednesday night.

Either the Nanos poll a month ago that showed Ford in a 24-point lead was badly flawed — the infamous “rogue poll” the industry dreads — or the scare tactics have worked to perfection.

Maybe it’s a bit of both.

First the poll numbers. It’s best to compare the result of one polling organization with itself, rather than with other polling companies. Ipsos, whose numbers are the latest, has shown a consistent pattern since the summer, using a sample of 400 people in all its polls.

In August, Ipsos reported a 11-point lead for Ford, with Pantalone at 9 per cent and Rossi at 7 per cent. In September, Smitherman closed the gap to 5 points; Pantalone and Rossi remained almost unchanged. And now, the poll conducted around Thanksgiving has Smitherman edging ahead.

Interestingly, Nanos had the largest sample, with 1,000 people polled. Their next poll result is eagerly awaited. So will Angus Reid’s, who placed Ford ahead by 13 points last month, much in line with Ipsos Reid.

In a campaign that has veered against conventional wisdom, here’s another one. Usually, a candidate does not take a large lead, lose it, and rebound to regain it. That’s where Smitherman sits now.

If he rides the momentum, does nothing to scare off the left-wing progressive vote, the majority of the “undecided” vote will go to him. But if Pantalone’s desperate moves to hang on to his 11 per cent support — this week he said Smitherman may be worse for the city than Ford — then Smitherman could stall again.

Hang on. This continues to be a race like no other.

Royson James usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: rjames@thestar.ca


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