Will Rob Ford's supporters leave Ford Nation?

The growing controversy over a purported video alleging to show Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine may be testing the faith of even his most die-hard supporters. But experts say Ford's policies may trump whatever personal issues he's facing, and that his supporters may rally behind him.
Will supporters continue to back Toronto Mayor Rob Ford following allegations that he was recorded on video appearing to smoke crack cocaine? (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

The growing controversy over a purported video alleging to show Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine may be testing the faith of even his most die-hard supporters.

Many of those supporters have, up until now at least, rallied behind the mayor. Despite his headline-grabbing antics ranging from controversial remarks to alleged public impairment, many have supported Ford's agenda to keep taxes at bay and "stop the gravy train" at city hall.

But some have wondered if this latest controversy may be the tipping point. As Jim Coyle, city columnist for the Toronto Star, in a column headlined "Is this too much for Ford Nation?" pointedly asked: how could his "base of supporters — despite mounting evidence of his personal troubles and spreading doubts about his fitness for office — continue to back him." 

Yet regardless of the seriousness of these recent allegations, it's very likely that many within his base will continue to support the mayor. Indeed, many may be bolstered by his statement Friday afternoon, in which he broke his silence on the issue and forcefully denied that he uses crack cocaine.

"Whether or not you support Ford's policy ideas is probably the dominant consideration for many. Not whether or not you support crack cocaine," said Laura Stephenson, political science professor at Western University in London, Ont.

"There's a lot of research in Canada about the importance of competency and character.... but at this point, there are some people who will be putting policy concerns ahead of personal considerations. Especially because the allegations have not been proven.

"The question is 'Why are they supporting him,' and that's the big thing," said Stephenson, co-director of the Political Behaviour Research Group. "So if they're supporting him because they agree with his vision for Toronto, or how he stands up to the provincial government, that's a very different reason to support someone. That's not the same as saying, 'I like this person personally and would like to have them over at my house.'"

Supporters of former U.S. president Bill Clinton faced a similar situation during the sex scandals involving Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones. Clinton had been accused of sexually harassing Jones, of having had an affair with Lewinsky, and of committing perjury and obstruction of justice, all culminating in his impeachment.

Molly Andolina, currently a political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, researched public attitudes toward Clinton when she was a director at the Pew Research Center.

"We found a lot of support was coming from those who were making that conscious line in their mind where I don’t like him as a person, but I do believe he’s going to do things for us as a nation that’s important," Andolina said.

"We totally found that with the scandal for President Clinton. That people liked his policies and they just didn’t care [about the scandal]," she said, adding that his highest level of support came the weekend he was impeached.

Women's groups criticized for supporting Clinton

Many women's groups were criticized for standing with the president, or for not speaking out enough against him. But they defended their actions, saying the importance of his policies outweighed his personal indiscretions.

"NOW never thought Bill Clinton was the answer to our dreams of equality for women," Patricia Ireland,  former president of the National Organization of Women, wrote back then. "Clinton was, for many of us, the option in 1996. Women voters elected Clinton, and the majority of women still approve of his performance in office, apparently judging him as a president whose strengths outweigh his flaws."

In a later interview, Ireland reportedly added: "On balance, women have had an ally in the White House. I mean, all of us knew he was a snake when we voted for him."

Quite often, Andolina said, continuing support comes down to who is the political alternative.

"It makes sense for these feminist organizations, as much as they may have hated to do it, if they live and die by abortion rights and the alternative is someone who clearly wants to roll that back, then they can be justified in holding their nose, and supporting somebody [like Clinton]."

D.C. mayor nabbed for crack use

Many voters in Washington, D.C., continued to support former mayor Marion Barry even after he was nabbed for smoking crack in an FBI sting operation in 1990.

Barry, who received a six-month prison sentence, was able to resuscitate his political career, becoming mayor for a fourth time, and to this day is on city council.

Like Ford, Barry had a strong base of support. He expanded the government payroll, set up a summer jobs program and was seen as making the government more responsive to disenfranchised residents, said Mike Madden, editor of the Washington City Paper.

"Barry was able to claim that whatever his shortcomings had been, they had always been personal foibles, not misconduct in government."

In fact, his campaign slogan during his political comeback was: "He may not be perfect, but he's perfect for D.C"

"He's still by far probably the most popular politician in D.C. politics now," Madden said. "He's very well-liked in his ward and a lot of people still see him as one of the few voices for D.C.'s disenfranchised residents."

Barry was recently approached by a Washington City Paper reporter and asked if there were any parallels between himself and Ford.

"Unless he was entrapped by the government, it's not similar," Barry said, adding that he was too focused on the residents of his ward to offer Ford any advice.