About the Author

John Laschinger

John Laschinger was born in Montreal and worked as a volunteer on Bill Davis's 1971 provincial election campaign. In the time since, as Canada's only full time campaign manager, he has been involved with forty-seven leadership and general elections across Canada and internationally. He lives in Toronto.

Books by this Author
Campaign Confessions

Campaign Confessions

Tales from the War Rooms of Politics
also available: eBook
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2014 Toronto Mayoral Election

Olivia Chow’s campaign for mayor of Toronto in 2014 was a classic front-runner’s campaign. She was faced with the dilemma of uncontrollably high expectations. Initially, high expectations raised her up, infusing her candidacy with what would eventually turn out to be false hope. In the end, her campaign began to crater when she could not meet those high expectations and the door was left open for another candidate to walk through.
The 2014 Toronto election was unique. (I shall delve into it again in Chapter 6, on the importance of research.) The mayor since 2010 had been Rob Ford, a former Toronto city councillor, who had been elected on a promise to reduce municipal spending, to “Stop the Gravy Train,” as he put it. Whatever that slogan meant, it catapulted him into office in 2010. By the midpoint of his four-year term, however, his mayoralty was in ruins. Ford had exposed himself as a drug abuser and alcoholic, given to embarrassing himself and his city by appearing in public repeatedly in what he would later describe as a “drunken stupor.” By 2013 a majority of Toronto voters had turned on him, and it was clear that the mayor could be defeated by almost any sensible — and sober — candidate. It was time for a change at city hall. As 2013 wound down, two-thirds of the voters were telling the pollsters they wanted a new mayor. This number did not change significantly over the next twelve months, and on October 27, 2014, election day, 66 percent of Torontonians voted for a candidate who was not named Ford.
For all of 2013, the public opinion polls, mainly conducted by Forum Research, showed Olivia Chow as the most credible of the potential non-Ford candidates. She enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls.
These polls included the same five potential candidates in the ballot question.

  • Rob Ford — Mayor of Toronto
  • Olivia Chow — NDP MP and widow of Jack Layton
  • John Tory — business executive, former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, and by 2013 a radio talk-show host in Toronto
  • Karen Stintz — Toronto city councillor and chair of the Toronto Transit Commission
  • David Soknacki — former city councillor and former city budget chief

During 2013, Olivia’s lead over Rob Ford ranged from 3 to 17 percent in polls naming these five candidates. The race began to tighten when John Tory officially entered the race. That was on February 24, 2014.
We knew we had a challenge heading into 2014. Olivia was the leading candidate. In a choice between her and Rob Ford, she would win hands down. The polls told us that. The expectations for her were high. Way too high!
These public polls results did provide us with one large advantage. They discouraged other anti-Ford progressives from jumping into the contest. However, we sensed a larger problem could emerge at a later date because of the unrealistic expectations. Yet there was little we could do to reduce expectations. Forum Research (and some other research firms) kept publishing these numbers every month.
Focus groups results from early 2014 heightened our concerns. Voters knew very little about Olivia and her personal background. Most knew she was an NDP MP from downtown Toronto and the widow of Jack Layton. Many remembered her standing stoically by his coffin at his funeral. But they knew very little else about her. Few knew she had been a Toronto school board trustee or a Toronto city councillor and that she had a number of personal accomplishments from her previous political positions.
It became obvious that her polling numbers were being driven mainly by her high name recognition.
In an attempt to counter this situation, we decided not to run a traditional front-runner’s campaign. We started the campaign aggressively on all fronts so as to not look as if we were taking the outcome for granted.
We toured aggressively. She visited forty-four wards of the city in forty-four days.
We pushed out policy planks for the first six weeks — one or two every week.
We conducted a large direct-mail fundraising campaign.
Initially, things went well. John Tory had announced his candidacy in late February with few preparations in place. After four to six weeks, our focus group respondents were saying he was invisible and they were disappointed in his passive campaign. Chow’s aggressive policy statements had caught hold.
The focus groups especially liked her plans to improve bus service, to launch an after- school program for kids, and to provide help for small business.
Olivia maintained a solid lead in the public polling during April and May, the only change being that Tory had jumped into second place ahead of Rob Ford. The embattled mayor announced on May 1 that he was entering rebab for his addiction problems and would be postponing his campaign activities.
The results of the April focus groups were generally positive, although some negatives were creeping into the respondents’ descriptions of my candidate. As voters were exposed to Olivia, concerns about increased spending and higher taxes began to fester. Some respondents started to comment on her difficulty in communicating in English (her second language) and her weakness at times in explaining her positions clearly. A general sense began to take hold that she was not meeting the high expectations voters had had for her.
A public poll on June 6 had Olivia with a 12 percent lead over Tory.
On June 12, the Ontario Liberal Party, led by Kathleen Wynne, not only won a majority provincial government, but they took twenty of the twenty-two seats in the city of Toronto. The New Democrats, who constituted a major part Olivia’s power base, lost three of the five seats they had held in Toronto before the election. Worse, the NDP lost Trinity-Spadina, the provincial seat that coincided with her former federal constituency. It was a disaster for the NDP in Toronto, and we knew that these results
would not help her mayoral campaign.
The next poll showed the first downward shift in support. Her lead over Tory dropped to 8 percent.
Then Rob Ford returned from rehab on June 30 and rejoined the campaign. The public reaction was startling. People who could not say enough critical things about him a couple of months earlier suddenly felt sympathy for him. He had been through a rough experience, but he had acknowledged his problem, sought treatment, and cleaned up his act, and now he was back asking for a second chance. We were taken aback by the number of Torontonians who were prepared to give him that second chance.
If the provincial election took some initial wind out of Chow’s sails, the re-emergence of Rob Ford undermined the advantage she had enjoyed as the pre-eminent anti-Ford candidate. Suddenly, Ford, rehabilitated, was not the Darth Vader of municipal politics. He seemed to a number of people to be a stronger candidate than he had been before rehab. That unsettled the two-thirds of Torontonians who above all wanted to be rid of Ford. I began to sense the shifting mood of the public from a number of conversations with observers of the political scene and campaign volunteers. Although not everyone believed that John Tory’s policies were sound (as can be seen from the Toronto Sun cartoon criticizing his Smart Track transit option), he seemed to have grabbed the anti-Ford mantle.
Olivia said she was hearing the same thing on the streets from voters. She was an experienced politician, and while most Canadians tend to be kind, courteous, and gentle to political candidates whom they are not supporting, she had picked up on the shift in support.
We went into the field with a new poll of our own on July 10. The results were shocking. After leading all candidates for eighteen months, our poll had Chow trailing Tory by twelve percentage points. What had happened? In the space of just nine days there had been a net swing of twenty points against us.
What had happened? What could be done about it?
We conducted focus groups on July 21 and 22. Here is the aide-memoire I wrote at the conclusion of those groups.

Tory is seen by many as the non-Ford candidate with momentum.
Chow’s strength in the downtown has been neutralized by Tory.
The three policies initially proposed by Chow (improved bus service, expanded after- school programs and assistance for small business) remain very popular (as is the youth jobs plan) but most forget that they are Chow policies. Most do not know what her message is. Tory, while not seen as putting forward any policy, does receive some credit for his Smart Track transit plan.
Concern about Chow raising taxes and not being a good fiscal manager continues to exist.
There continues to be a desire for a pragmatic progressive mayor. Recent quantitative findings show a strong desire for investments to be made in communities and Chow is seen as the candidate most likely to make those investments. During these groups, respondents from across the city clearly say that while they like the policies proposed by Chow, they equally want a right-of-centre mayor to keep costs under control.

We never recovered from that dramatic loss in support over nine days in July. The next public poll, published on July 21, showed we were still ahead, although only by three points, but the poll after that on August 5–6 had us ten points behind Tory.
We lost the election on October 27 by 18 percent to Tory, and we trailed Doug Ford (who had taken his brother’s place on the ballot after it was disclosed that Rob was entering hospital for cancer surgery) by 11 percent.
Olivia’s inability to meet her high expectations had opened the door for another candidate to become the one to beat Rob Ford.

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