The Outsiders: How Rob Ford and Donald Trump shocked politics

In the lead-up to the elections of both U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, few saw it coming. But in the aftermath, their unexpected victories now seem unavoidable.

Former Ford aide says late Toronto mayor and Trump share an anti-establishment style that appealed to voters

Rob Ford and Donald Trump both successfully branded themselves as anti-establishment, according to former Ford aide Mark Towhey. (Chris Young/Canadian Press, Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the lead-up to the elections of both U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, few saw it coming. But in the aftermath, their unexpected victories now seem unavoidable.

Both were highly recognizable figures on the campaign. Both stuck to simple messages. And both found receptive audiences. 

After two terms of a Democrat president in one case and two terms of left-leaning mayor David Miller in the other, Trump and Ford were exactly what a significant part of their electorates were waiting for.

It's hard not to see, in this context, the way branding themselves as anti-establishment outsiders shaking up the political system set a formula for success.

The style

"He isn't a packaged politician. I think people are sick and tired of that." Those are the words of former Rob Ford chief of staff Mark Towhey. Although he could easily be describing his former boss, he's talking about Donald Trump.

In an interview with CBC Toronto, Towhey says part of Trump's appeal, like Ford's, is his willingness to speak his mind.

"He's speaking it in a way that makes it pretty clear that this wasn't part of a pre-digested pablum that came through some focus group. He was telling you in clear language what he believed."

Former Rob Ford chief of staff Mark Towhey says there are clear similarities between the political success of Ford and Donald Trump. ((Chris Young/Canadian Press))

The unconventional style of Trump and Ford worked to their advantage in another way, according to David Soberman, professor of marketing at Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto.

Because both Trump and Ford don't fit the mould of an "average politician," Soberman says, campaign missteps had much less of an impact.

"Their popularity is unaffected by things that would tend to drive down the popularity of most politicians."

Soberman says Trump and Ford had the advantage of being perceived as political figures who "can do things that most of us would characterize as gaffes and not suffer from it."

The message

And no matter how many mistakes they made, or how freely Trump or Ford spoke during their campaigns, their messages were never drowned out.

While media and opponents clung to controversial statements, for Trump and Ford supporters their core campaign messages – "Make America Great Again," "Respect For Taxpayers" – remained effective in their simplicity, resonance and durability.

A Ford campaign sign using the "Respect For Taxpayers" slogan. (CBC)

While crafting an effective campaign slogan has always been important in politics, it may be even more crucial now, according to Andrew Iliadis, a postdoctoral fellow in digital media, data, and culture at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa.

"In an era of information overload caused by social media and the internet in general, a slogan contained in a 30-second news soundbite might be all that sticks in a voter's mind," Iliadis said in an interview.

"Trump knew this and he repeated that slogan until he won."

Presidential contender Donald Trump looks on at the 16th green on the 1st first day of the Women's British Open golf championship on the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, Thursday, July 30, 2015. (Associated Press/Scott Heppell)

The support

Towhey says both Ford and Trump "tapped into" a group of voters who felt they weren't being heard.

"Rob Ford was a politician who gave voice to a very large swath of the city that found the politics as usual wasn't working for them. They weren't getting what they wanted from their city."

For Ford supporters, the bulk of them in Toronto's more suburban neighbourhoods, Towhey says it was the "day-to-day stuff", such as garbage collection, that they were concerned about, rather than broader city-building policies other politicians focused on.

Towhey believes a similar dynamic just played out on a national scale in the United States.

"There are millions of Americans for whom electing a Democrat or a Republican over the last 20 years hasn't made any difference. And so they were really voting against the establishment."

The brand

Both Ford and Trump were already established names by the time they were running for office.

In Toronto, after 10 years in local politics, Ford was well-known as a pugnacious city councillor.

In the U.S., after a lifetime in the media and most notably as a reality TV star, Trump embodied the cliché of the brash billionaire.

Each had a brand, Soberman says, and whether voters were attracted to them or not, they were familiar with them.

Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford had a firmly established brand prior to running for mayor, according to University of Toronto professor David Soberman. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)
A bobble-head of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump sits on a railing at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, on July 5, 2016. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

"Once people are aware of a brand, even if it doesn't have a positive or negative effect on you, simply knowing about it makes you more likely to have a positive feeling towards it."

Soberman says it's known as the the "familiarity effect" and it can be a powerful advantage in politics.

While the media, pollsters, and some highly engaged voters may spend a lot of time investigating candidates and their policies, many more people don't.

"The average voter may not go into much depth and analysis to make a decision about voting and it may simply be the fact that they're familiar with someone and they feel a degree of comfort with that name," Soberman said.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?