Rob Ford's tumour diagnosis and the future of Toronto's race for mayor

What might happen in Toronto's mayoral race if Mayor Rob Ford is forced to withdraw from the campaign trail to focus on his health?

'It's a big game-changer with a lot of unknowns surrounding it,' says one politico

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, right, has been admitted to hospital following the discovery of a tumour in his abdomen, raising speculation that his brother Coun. Doug Ford, left, might put his name on the mayoral ballot.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was admitted to hospital Wednesday after doctors found what they believe to be a tumour in his abdomen, raising the possibility that he will be forced to withdraw his name from the Oct. 27 mayoralty ballot to focus on his health.

Should Ford opt to leave the election race, what is to become of his campaign and the immensely influential voter bloc that is Ford Nation?

Under most circumstances, the answer would be straightforward: Ford withdraws, and the two other remaining contenders, John Tory and Olivia Chow, go head-to-head.

But Ford Nation still has a potential hope in the mayor's older brother, Coun. Doug Ford, who has until Friday at 2 p.m. ET to register as a candidate. While the latter could not formally replace the former as part of the same campaign, a Doug Ford candidacy would likely be the de facto alternative for loyal Ford voters. 

The mayor's campaign has seen a resurgence in recent polls, overtaking Chow as the second-place contender going into the last six weeks of the campaign, and his brother could take the flag and continue Ford Nation's charge.

"I could certainly see it happening," said John Mascarin, an attorney specializing in municipal law and an adjunct professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

"I would have said that it would take a pretty extraordinary event for Doug to jump into the campaign, and this is a potentially extraordinary event. He has the Ford name, and it wouldn't be surprising if he thought, 'I have to keep the Ford name in this race.'"

'Unspoken' qualities

Despite the Ford family legacy, however, it's not entirely evident that Coun. Ford could fill his brother's shoes. The mayor, Mascarin said, has inexplicably managed to maintain the support of his base through a self-inflicted gauntlet of seemingly insurmountable scandals and turmoil — a feat Mascarin chalks up to a "uniqueness of character" that the other Ford siblings do not possess.

"Could Doug galvanize the voters the same way Rob Ford has? Does Doug have that unspoken 'every man' quality that maintains the incredible loyalty of Ford nation? No, I don't think he does," Mascarin said.

When asked at a press conference Wednesday evening if he would step-in to fill the void left by the mayor's potential departure, Coun. Ford declined to comment, saying that the future of the campaign would be revealed in due time.

While voters could be attracted by the fact that Doug Ford's lifestyle has been more stable than his brother's, he's also been criticized for hard-edged verbal attacks on the father of an autistic boy, and the so-called 'shirtless jogger' who confronted the mayor this summer.

There's also the consideration that, unlike his brother, Doug Ford is heavily involved in the day-to-day running of Ford-family-owned Deco Labels, with the alleged blurring of private business and public office an increasing area of focus for reporters in recent weeks.

Candidates return?

Mayor Ford's departure from the race would also fundamentally change the nature of the election campaign, opening the door to a range of possibilities including the return of candidates who previously withdrew their names, even if his brother puts his name in contention.

"It'd be a big game-changer, with a lot of unknowns surrounding it," Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University in Toronto, told CBC News.

Perhaps the biggest change would be in the optics surrounding the race and those left in it: how the public views their options without the most polarizing political figure in the city's recent history skewing their perspective.

"As long as the mayor is in the race ... the mayoralty campaign becomes Rob Ford versus whoever is perceived as having the best chance to beat him," said Siemiatycki.

"Once you take Rob Ford out of the equation, then it becomes a much more careful comparison of the qualities of a range of possible candidates."

As Siemiatycki points out, only Chow and Tory remain alongside Mayor Ford as real contenders, but Ford's absence or a Doug Ford candidacy could encourage a candidate like David Soknacki, who bowed out of the race earlier this week, to restart his run, or someone like lawyer Ari Goldkind, who's been lobbying to get included in debates scheduled over the coming weeks, could raise his profile and siphon votes from the more well-established candidates.

The 'sympathy vote'

It's unlikely that John Tory, who currently sits comfortably out front of the pack according to recent polling data, would change his approach to campaigning if Doug Ford replaced his brother in the race, Mascarin said.

"Tory will likely stay on track. He's been very successful thus far. If there are no Fords in the race, he'd likely pick up some votes, and if Doug Ford were to enter the race as his brother left it, Doug still wouldn't be able to galvanize votes like Rob can."

There is, of course, the possibility that Mayor Ford's condition only temporarily relegates him to the sidelines and he stays on the ballot.

Politics can be a cynical business, and while it can be uncomfortable to discuss, Ford's perseverance could generate a so-called 'sympathy vote' among voters who see his tribulations as more evidence he is the right person to helm Canada's largest city.

"I could certainly see a 'sympathy vote' happening if Ford stays on board and continues his campaign," said Mascarin.
"He could easily turn it to his advantage: he's had a major health scare and still he is marshalling on."

Both Tory and Chow offered well wishes in statements directed at Mayor Ford on Wednesday night. But despite the brief reprieve in what has thus far been a heated and gruelling election season, both campaigns — and indeed the voters of Toronto — are no doubt waiting in suspense for the Fords' next move.