How can Chow possibly win?

It is now past Labour Day, the actual start of the 2014 mayoral campaign.  Everything until now has been a prelude.  Now that the race is on, conversations are starting with questions about who is going to win.  I’d prefer that people ask who SHOULD win, or why they should win, or how to help the best candidate win….

No, the question is always about who WILL win.  And it’s usually a question, not an assertion.  By eliciting an opinion, rather than offering one, there is no risk of being wrong.  Everyone likes to sound informed and engaged while avoiding the heartbreak of unimaginable outcomes, like Ford’s 2010 victory.

Despite being fraught with risk, private political discourse can be influential.  If I persuade someone that a candidate is destined for victory, that person will repeat my arguments around the water cooler, on the phone, at the gym, in the bar, at the café, and on the streetcar.  Every time they echo my opinion, it radiates out through new circles of friends and colleagues.  Hundreds or thousands of impressions can be made like this.  It works like social media, only better, due to the immediacy and authenticity of actual social contact.

I remember when I urged support for David Miller in his first campaign.  The father of a friend took me aside at a pub to explain how things really work.  “You’re wasting your time,” he said.  “Miller can’t win because the right people don’t want him to win.  They want John Tory.  David simply hasn’t got the royal jelly.”  (Royal jelly, by the way, is a supplement derived from the goo that bees feed their larvae.  All sorts of health benefits are attributed to this goo by people who, like my friend’s father, should be avoided at all costs).

I thought, WTF?  Royal Jelly?  What continent are we on?  What CENTURY are we in?!

I started explaining to people that the winner of an election is chosen on the last day, by voters, not on the first day, by media and Bay Street power brokers.  They needed to believe in the power of voting before taking an interest in a trailing candidate’s virtues or a front runner’s defects.  I frequently found myself delivering political messages rolled up, like beef wellington, inside grade school civics lessons.

It was tiresome, but who wants to live in a city where mayors are anointed, not elected?  Now it’s time to trigger the same kinds of conversations about Olivia Chow, because lately I’ve been sensing trepidation about another Ford victory, and hearing reassurance that Tory’s jelly is, at last, sufficiently royal.

So here goes:

Olivia Chow will win because we love to hate our municipal government.  For as long as Toronto has been an amalgamated mega-city, it’s been ungovernable.  No mayor can satisfy both urban and suburban constituents equally.

It’s a convenient flaw designed into the structure of the City by the nefarious Harris Tories.  It guarantees that the City remains divided and conquered.  We suffer the costs of unmanageable scale, but can never leverage that scale, in a unified way, to pry more autonomy from the feds and the province.

When we elect a new mayor, we reject the previous agenda, seeking revenge or relief from a new one.  Barbara Hall, the downtown Mayor of the pre-amalgamated Toronto, was replaced by Mel Lastman, a suburban conservative.  Lastman was replaced by David Miller, a downtown lefty.  Miller was replaced by Ford, a suburban neocon.  Logically, then, Chow will be favoured by a swing back to the urban left of the civic voter spectrum.

This result is favoured by the cluttered slate of stereotypical conservatives opposing her.  She is the only one in a position to benefit from the predictable right-to-left, suburban-to-urban shift in 2014.  All three are one-percenters financially, all three are white, all three are men….   If indeed there is a pendulum swing at work in the post-amalgamation City of Toronto, all Chow has to do is wait for it, grab hold, and let it sweep her off her feet.

Now I’m not saying that her team is capable of positioning and instructing her correctly.  Judging from her debate performances, she’s capable of blowing it, like the Leafs protecting a one-point lead, late in the third period.  Nevertheless, the advantage is hers.  If her team resets its direction, and some public affection gets kindled along the way, she can win.

This is a gutsy call in a week when polls show that that Chow has fallen further behind Tory and has been overtaken by Ford.  But gutsy calls are what this is all about.  Elections cannot be reduced to mere poll-parsing.  People have to say what they believe, and stick to it.

Chow has managed to lose ground when she should have picked up some support from withdrawal of the only other woman in the race.  Instead she lost ground to Ford, a notorious misogynist.  That doesn’t inspire confidence.  In fact she’s been in gradual decline since July 2nd.  But that all happened before Labour Day, which I maintain makes it irrelevant.

Although polls are only moments in the past, they’re given undue weight by pundits and the public.  Here’s a quick take on the polls for the eight months prior to Labour Day.

Media have described Chow’s recent decline as a crumbling of support under her feet.  It is true that her popularity is 13% lower than at her peak two months ago.  But it’s also worth noting that Tory lost 11% in only two weeks (July 5th to 21st), and has yet to fully recover.  No one claimed that his campaign is “crumbling” or that his team should be panicked.  Two weeks from now, these fluctuations will be important, but right now, both candidates have shown their popularity to be fragile with a fickle, uncommitted, summertime electorate.

Ford’s recent rise in popularity has been achieved by skipping debates and avoiding public utterances.  When a candidate’s silence works for him, and his words work against him, it’s going to be tough going through the 35 debates still on the schedule.

A surprising number of people tell me that Soknacki makes the most sense to them.  I tend to agree.  Yet his numbers bump along the bottom of the chart, eerily intertwined with the “Don’t Know,” responses.  No politician wants to be known as the alternative to, “Don’t Know.”

Actually, if we’re reading the latest poll honestly, “Don’t Know” made the greatest gain.  It jumped by 14%, vaulting it into fourth place.  If support for “Don’t Know” rises at the same rate next week, it will hit 31%, leapfrogging Ford and Chow.  Then we’d have John Tory and Don’t Know in a dead heat through to the finish, October 27th.

But that would be silly.  The number of undecided voters jumped in the last few days because they just returned from summer vacations and only started thinking about how they’d vote because they were prompted by the pollster’s call.  That reading makes more sense than the conclusion that Tory is surging, Chow is a lost cause, and “Don’t Know” is on track to be our next mayor.

Having dismissed summer poll results, let me offer a numeric forecast.  If I’m wrong, there’ll be so much more to mock me for.

  • Ford’s support will plateau around 30% of currently committed voters, but in horror at the prospect of his re-election, a lot more voters become engaged, reducing him proportionally to only 25%.
  • Those new voters will be Chow supporters in the majority because, when it comes to policy and perspective, Tory and Ford have never been that far apart.
  • Soknacki will gain a little from the anyone-but-Ford groundswell too and, like Chow, will improve over time as people become more familiar with him and his policy platform.

So Ford locks in his 25%.  Soknacki comes in just under 10%.  That leaves 65% for Chow and Tory to split.  But Tory has to share the conservative vote with the other two guys, and there just aren’t enough right of centre folk in Toronto.  For Tory to get 35%, in addition to Ford and Soknacki’s 35%, we’d have to believe that 70% of Torontonians are willing to support conservative suburbanites in 2014.

That wouldn’t be likely in a good year for conservative suburbanites, and certainly not in the wake of the Ford fiasco.  If Tory falls 5% short, that leaves 35% for Chow, which is enough to win in this scenario.

That’s much less difficult to imagine, given our federal and provincial voting habits, and our tendency to trash the legacies of incumbents.  Chow 35%, Tory 30%, Ford 25%, Soknacki and all the fringe candidates, 10%.

So that’s it.  Expect a narrow Chow victory with support from a minority of eligible voters, contingent on Soknacki nibbling away five percent of Ford and Tory support in the final weeks of a 10-month campaign.

This is not an endorsement, by the way.  Despite the support of some unsavoury characters, I remain a Soknacki supporter.  But if I believe that campaigns and elections matter, then this is where I think this election is headed.

So how about those Blue Jays?  I picked them to win the AL East.

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