Olivia Chow underperforming in Toronto's race for mayor

She came in as the front-runner with established name recognition, so why is Olivia Chow running in third place, as polls suggest?

Debate-heavy campaign may not play to her strengths, Ryerson professor says

Polling numbers suggest Olivia Chow is running third in the Toronto race for mayor behind John Tory and Doug Ford. (David Donnelly/CBC)

A social activist and Olivia Chow supporter admits to being "bewildered" by Chow's poor showing in the polls with voting day in the Toronto mayoralty race less than three weeks away.

"She's the only one with a progressive vision and a platform that addresses women, family and children's issues, and yet the public seems to not have embraced these issues," Winnie Ng told CBC News on Wednesday.

Ng was responding to polling numbers that suggest Chow support is holding in the low 20s, a website that compiles data from various polls, pegs Chow's support at 22 per cent, behind leader John Tory (43 per cent) and Doug Ford (34 per cent).

In July, ThreeHundredEight gauged Chow support at 33 per cent, enough to give her a slim lead over Tory (31 per cent) and Rob Ford (26 per cent). Rob Ford has since been replaced in the race by his brother Doug Ford.

If the poll data are to be believed, what explains Chow's lacklustre numbers? After all, the former Toronto school board trustee, city councillor and MP entered the race as the front-runner, a candidate with well-established roots in the city and solid name recognition.

The CBC spoke to Ryerson political science professor Myer Siemiatycki about why Chow's campaign appears to be misfiring.

Does Toronto have a 'front-runner curse?'

If Chow doesn't win, it won't be the first time a candidate leading the Toronto mayoral race lost their momentum. Barbara Hall's advantage eroded the year David Miller won in 2003, and in 2010 Rob Ford came from behind to defeat George Smitherman.

Siemiatycki says candidates in the lead often run a safe campaign, a move that can backfire and may, to some extent, explain Chow's poor polling numbers. "There's been a bit too restrained and cautious kind of messaging from the Chow campaign," he said.

Not a great debater

The final few weeks of this campaign will feature debates almost daily. But if debates are the lens many voters use to study the candidates, it isn't one that shows Chow in the most flattering light. "The overwhelming focus on debates doesn't reflect and play to Olivia Chow's strength and record," said Siemiatycki. "She's held her own in those debates, but the reviews have been that she has not been as strong a voice as some of the other candidates. I think her skills at consensus-building and team leadership haven't had as clear a chance to emerge in a debate-focused kind of campaign."

Is strategic voting hurting Chow?  

Siemiatycki and others believe the Fords have, to some extent, polarized the Toronto electorate. He said many voters whose politics align better with Chow's platform might plan to hold their nose and vote for Tory to ensure there's no vote split that could benefit Ford.

"There's no question that on voting day, a large proportion of Torontonians … for them the ballot question will be 'who has the best chance of defeating Doug Ford,'" said Siemiatycki.

Is a turnaround possible?

Siemiatycki doesn't feel all hope is lost for Chow. He said her recent success in highlighting holes in John Tory's SmartTrack plan could catch on with voters as voting day nears. "If [SmartTrack] drops in credibility and Olivia Chow is seen as the candidate that has flagged those concerns … I think it is possible for the swing to go in the other direction. She has identified a range of issues that other candidates aren't speaking to and that could become a pole of attraction."

And, of course, those polls could be wrong 

Both Ng and Siemiatycki remain somewhat skeptical of the polling data. Siemiatycki pointed to the failure of polls to predict Christy Clark's majority win in B.C., Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's win in 2010, and Kathleen Wynne's majority win in this spring's Ontario election. Ng said phone polls often exclude voters "from diverse communities."

"I would take all polls at this point with a pretty big grain of salt," said Siemiatycki. He, along with Ng, also pointed to the importance of voter turnout, something polls don't always do a good job of predicting.

Ng suggested that Chow's group of volunteers will make a difference when it comes to door-knocking and getting the vote out on Oct. 27. 

"Polls aren't the only thing that drives the campaign," she said.


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