In search of a winning progressive coalition

  • 1
  • June 18, 2013

A while back I was asked to give a presentation on what I thought the fundamental divide was in Toronto city politics, and how a “progressive” candidate might win an election. I’ve attached the presentation as a PDF here. The main takeaway messages are:

  • There is a real city-suburb divide that has persisted across multiple elections. To win, a “downtown” candidate must carry his or her base but also appeal to suburban voters. Two-thirds of the votes are in the suburbs; even if the downtown voted as a bloc, it cannot win a citywide election on its own. More than half of Smitherman’s votes came from outside of the old City of Toronto, but they were not enough to win.
  • Examining the aggregate demographics of the parts of the city in which Smitherman and Ford won a majority of the vote reveals that there are two worlds within the City of Toronto. On average, Smitherman Village is wealthier and more educated than Ford Nation, contains more tenants and fewer homeowners, and contains more professionals. Home values are higher and fewer people commute by car. Ford Nation also contains more first-generation immigrants and visible minorities.
  • A more detailed statistical analysis suggests that, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the propensity to commute by automobile is the greatest predictor of Ford support, while higher levels of educational attainment and visible minorities as a proportion of the population are the strongest correlates of Smitherman support. Interestingly, income and home values were not statistically significant correlates of support for either candidate.
  • This suggests that the 2010 election cannot be read simply as the revenge of the squeezed lower-middle class or an upper-middle class property tax revolt. The common narrative that Ford was buoyed by the rise of a new conservative ethnic voter in suburbs also doesn’t play out. Neighbourhoods with many foreign-born residents leaned toward Ford, while those with many visible minorities (i.e., more recently arrived immigrants) tended to lean toward Smitherman. In other research I have found the same split among support for Conservative and NDP candidates at the federal level.
  • Instead, it seems that there is a lifestyle divide between core and suburban voters than leads them on average to behave differently regardless of whether they are rich or poor, homeowners or tenants.
  • Finally, a comparison between the 2003 and 2010 elections shows that John Tory and Rob Ford had a very different distribution of support, as did David Miller and George Smitherman. This suggests that while there is a core-suburb divide, it is not insurmountable and communities can be activated in different ways depending on the special dynamics of the election campaign. Also, no candidate should forget that in the 2011 provincial and federal elections, the Liberals were the first-place party in the City of Toronto, with the NDP and the Conservatives vying for second place.


  • Joyce Hall says:

    Very revealing analysis. Interesting to note that “the propensity to commute by automobile” was the greatest predictor of a Ford vote.

  • Glen says:

    If the suburban commuter was commuting outside of city, which is increasingly common, the rational would not be as nefarious as believed.

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