The science behind Ford Nation

Julia Belluz asks the experts why Rob Ford has backers — no matter what
City of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford addresses the media outside office in Toronto on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. Ford was responding to a new video that was released. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Rob Ford bleeds like an ink stain on Toronto, yet his support continues to rise. Why? Unable to come up with an explanation, Science-ish looked to science.

Turns out Torontonians are like most electors. Research on voter behaviour shows that decisions about leaders are not rooted in evidence or actual track records but rather in such factors as gender, age, party affiliation, facial expressions and likability.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Dr. Matthew Baum (PhD) calls these shortcuts and says they are no different from the ones we use to decide where and when to cross the street or what cell phone to purchase.

“People have limited time and they have their priorities,” Baum said. This doesn’t make voters irrational, he cautioned, even those who would still cast a ballot for a crack-smoking mayor. “If they are not that interested in politics, it’s not a very good use of time to learn all the nuances of a candidate. So instead they rely on shortcuts: likeability, the opinions of other trusted elites.”

So the mayor’s conservative rhetoric and everyman appeal might be the shortcuts people rely on when judging him. Still, that doesn’t answer the question of why some Torontonians would not prize other shortcuts—like the fact the mayor smokes crack.

Political psychology research offers some clues. Constituents can be “primed” by political campaigns to vote based on key messages—no matter a politician’s actions. As long as Ford is perceived to be giving people what they want—no tax hikes, “stopping the gravy train”—his poor personal record may not matter at the polls. “If (Ford) is seen as a champion of the working class… delivering the things (people) care about,” Baum added, “the fact that he’s a lunatic in his personal life is much less important.”

That’s probably why Ford’s first line of defence is to cite his record on taxes and the city budget—even if his numbers don’t add up.

Communications expert Dr. Alexandre Sévigny (PhD) had another explanation for the mayor’s popularity. “Framing theory says that an effective mode of persuasion is to focus on the essence of an issue rather than on specific facts,” he said. “There has been consistent framing of the media as ‘liberal’ and willing to stop at nothing to get rid of Ford.” So the mayor’s fans may believe he has been victimized as a result of this framing by the conservative movement.

But at some point, shouldn’t the essence—that the mayor is a big, fat liar—overcome framing and priming?

It didn’t in Washington, D.C. Marion Barry, the notorious former mayor, became more popular as allegations of adultery and crack use mounted. Baum said that it’s because the mayor was viewed as a victim of the establishment. “The more the authorities trashed him, the more wrong-doing he was accused of, the more popular he got.”

For now, whatever happens next in this Toronto circus, Ford’s fate in textbooks is sealed: He’s a case study in how to smoke crack, bully, urinate in public, talk at a press conference about cunnilingus with your wife, consort with gang members, sweat through city events “hammered,” lie on myriad occasions about everything from the existence of the now infamous video to your fiscal record—and stay mayor.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is senior editor at the Medical Post. She is currently on a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto