Accountability and the Mayor’s Office: Explaining John Tory’s Popularity

Written by Michael McGregor

In comparison to the raucous affairs that were the 2010 and 2014 mayoral campaigns, Toronto’s 2018 election is shaping up to be relatively tame. By all accounts, John Tory has only one serious challenger, former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat. Until recently, it was widely anticipated that Doug Ford would vie for the mayoralty, though Ford’s sudden ascension to the leadership of the Ontario PC Party, and ultimately the province, ensured that a rematch of the 2014 election was not in the cards. Former mayor Mel Lastman’s son, Blayne, apparently had brief plans to run, but announced he would not run soon after rumours of his potential participation emerged. Keesmaat herself did not file to run until the nomination deadline (July 27th), supposedly being prompted to do so by her dissatisfaction with the provincial government’s Better Local Government Act, which saw the province cut the number of city councillors in Toronto from 44 to 25.

Though there are nearly three dozen candidates in the mayoral race, only two, Tory and Keesmaat, are generally seen as serious contenders for the office.  Even then, Keesmaat would seem to have her work cut out for her: incumbents have a famous advantage in municipal politics. John Tory is no exception. 

In this short piece I make the case that, at this point in time, it appears that Tory will be extremely difficult to unseat in the 2018 mayoral election. To make this argument, I draw upon publicly available polling data, as well as data from a 2016 survey I conducted along with some colleagues (Aaron Moore and Laura Stephenson) as part of the Toronto Election Study.

Polling data from Forum Research serve as the first source of evidence that Keesmaat faces an uphill battle. The data show a longstanding, positive assessment of John Tory’s performance among the general population. In a Forum survey conducted shortly after Keesmaat’s entry into the race, Tory was found to have an approval rating of 56% (25% disapproved while the remaining respondents “don’t know” if they approved of his performance). Tory had 50% support or greater among both men and women, all age groups except for 18-34, and in all parts of the city. To provide some points of reference, Forum’s most recent survey on Federal politics found a 41% approval rating for Justin Trudeau, and Kathleen Wynne had an approval rating of merely 20% in the weeks leading up to the recent Ontario election. Tory’s popularity is also nothing new –  he has had a 50% approval rating or higher since early 2017. It is extremely difficult to challenge an incumbent under such circumstances, which helps to explain why so few legitimate contenders have put them names forward to run for the city’s highest office.

Survey data from the Toronto Election Study reinforce these findings. Our midterm survey, fielded in late-2016, provide additional evidence that Keesmaat has a challenge ahead of her. As part of this survey [1], we we asked Torontonians if they thought the city had improved, worsened, or stayed about the same in five policy areas since the 2014 election. Figure 1 shows the result of this analysis.

Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 3.01.23 PM

Figure 1: Evaluations of Policy Performance (2014-2016)

Overall, respondents painted a bleak picture of Toronto’s performance during Tory’s first two years as mayor. In three policy areas, property taxes, traffic and congestion and housing affordability, a majority of respondents were of the opinion that things had deteriorated. In another two, public transit and the city’s finances, responses were slightly more positive, but negative assessments still heavily outweighed positive ones by a ratio of more than 2.5:1. As of 2016, Torontonians were clearly of the opinion that the city was headed in the wrong direction.

Under such circumstances, voters might reasonably be expected to punish the mayor for the city’s poor performance, perhaps making his defeat in an election more likely. Indeed, the ideal of democratic accountability depends upon the ability and willingness of voters to reward or punish good or bad behaviour.

The link between perceptions of policy outcomes and evaluations of Tory, however, seems absent in Toronto. As part of the same Toronto Election Study survey, we asked respondents how satisfied they were with the mayor’s performance over the last two years. Their answers are shown in Figure 2.

Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 3.01.49 PM

Figure 2: Satisfaction with the Performance of Mayor John Tory

The results in Figure 2 point to a startling disconnect between assessments of policy performance and levels of satisfaction with the mayor [2]. Despite the fact that Torontonians had overwhelmingly negative assessments of the city’s performance in all of the areas we asked them about, nearly 60% were either somewhat or very satisfied with the mayor’s performance.  Only about 16% were dissatisfied.

In short, John Tory is popular and, even though voters don’t seem to believe that Toronto has improved a great deal (or at all) since he began his term, they remain largely supportive of him. The big takeaway from the figures above is that, at the aggregate, the electorate does not appear to be holding the mayor accountable for policy outcomes in areas where he reasonably can be expected to exert influence. Combined with the evidence from Forum Research that show that Tory has deep, broad and long-standing support from his constituents, these data suggest that Tory’s chances at re-election are better than slim.

Michael McGregor is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. He is Principal Investigator for the Canadian Municipal Election Study

[1] N=1,477. Data were collected online by Research Now, using an existing panel of respondents. Data are weighted for age, gender and education.

[2] Multivariate analysis shows that, for some policy areas, there is a modest relationship between evaluations of policy performance and levels of satisfaction with the mayor, at the individual level. The model has limited explanatory power, however, with an R-squared value of 0.13.

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