The Economy and Vote Choice in the 2014 Toronto Municipal Election

The direction of the economy is one of the best predictors of vote choice in Federal and Provincial elections.  Little is known, however, about the the impact of this variable at the municipal level.  Toronto Election Study (TES) data reveal that economic evaluations had a significant impact upon mayoral vote choice, but no effect upon ward races, in the 2014 Toronto Municipal election.  Such a finding is perhaps surprising given Toronto’s ‘weak mayor' system and the limited capacity for Canadian municipalities to influence their own economy. 

The Theory

Economic conditions are known to influence electoral outcomes, in that incumbents are more likely to win re-election when the economy is doing well.  The state of the economy is consistently one of the best predictors of vote choice, and the literature on economic voting at the national and provincial levels in Canada is both broad and deep.  However, few scholars have examined the relationship between perceptions of economic conditions and electoral choice at the municipal level.  Do voters hold incumbent mayors or councillors responsible for the direction of a city’s economy? 

The TES allows us to consider this question in the case of the 2014 Toronto election.  The survey included the following question:  Over the last year, has Toronto’s economy gotten better, gotten worse, or stayed about the same?  We can compare the responses to this question to respondents’ vote choice to determine if voters held incumbents responsible for the direction of the economy.

There is good reason to expect voters not to attributed responsibility for the economy to municipal politicians.  Municipal governments have far less independent authority than the Federal and Provincial governments. Comparatively speaking, the financial tools available to local government are severely limited, and their power is highly constrained by the provincial governments that create and ultimately control them.  Municipalities therefore have little, if any, ability to stimulate their own economy, and most certainly their influence is dwarfed by both the federal and provincial orders of government.

One might also reason that the structure of Toronto’s government should make it unlikely that voters will attribute responsibility for the economy to the mayor. Toronto’s mayor is institutionally weak when compared to many American cities and some Canadian ones (e.g. Vancouver, Montreal, and Winnipeg), and certainly compared to provincial premiers or the prime minister. While he/she is elected at large, the mayor counts as only one vote on City Council, and is constantly at the mercy of ever-fluid coalitions of ward councillors.  Although the mayor is the only elected official in the city that can claim to represent the city as whole, in practice City Council holds most of the authority in Toronto.

This ‘weak mayor’ system, coupled with the limited policy making capacity of municipalities, suggests that voters Toronto might be expected assign little responsibility for economic conditions to an incumbent mayor.  The situation is similar for individual councillors.  Each councillor has but one vote on a 45-member council (44 councillors plus the mayor), and without political parties that might structure voting blocs, it is difficult to attribute responsibility for decisions without undertaking a full review of each vote cast. As a result, the institutional structure in Toronto may be undermining the impact of economic conditions on voting for incumbents (mayoral or council).

The Data

Before describing our findings, we should note that retrospective economic evaluations are theoretically only relevant if an incumbent candidate or party is present, and it is our position that Doug Ford (who replaced his ailing brother on the ballot on the date of the nomination deadline) can be viewed as an acceptable incumbent.  Respondents were asked how similar they believed Doug’s policies were to those of Rob, 85.6% thought the brothers’ policies were all the same, 10.6% did not know, while only 3.8% were of the opinion that the platforms of the two brothers were either mostly or all different.  We omit those respondents who believed the policies of the brothers were either mostly or all different and those answered “don’t know” from our analysis of mayoral vote choice and assume that, for all remaining respondents, Doug can be considered the de facto incumbent.  At the ward level we have no such issue, as incumbents were present in 37 of 44 wards; we limit this part of our analysis to these wards only.

So what do the TES data say?  Our analysis reveals, perhaps surprisingly, that economic voting was indeed a factor in the 2014 Toronto election, though only at the mayoral level.  At the ward level, we find no evidence that the economy had a significant effect upon incumbent support for incumbent councillors.  In the mayoral election, however, Doug Ford received a boost of 5 percentage points if voters believed the city’s economy had improved in the last year, as compared to those individuals who believed the economy had worsened.  Despite the good reasons to expect economic voting to not be present in the Toronto municipal election, therefore, perceptions of the direction of the economy did affect support for Doug Ford.

So what might account for this potentially surprising finding?  We can see two potential explanations.  First, Toronto’s non-partisan system may lead voters to search for alternative cues.  They may turn to the economy as a shortcut, despite the many reasons why economic considerations should not factor into municipal vote decisions.  Alternatively, it may be that political rhetoric is such that voters are led to make incorrect links between the economy and the government/mayor’s effect.  In other words, it may be the perception of a politician’s economic impact, rather than the objective truth, that matters for vote choice.  The side that does the best job of arguing its economic impact stands to benefit from an issue that should likely not factor into mayoral election outcomes.  Indeed, Rob Ford claimed in the months leading up to the election that he “transformed Toronto into an economic powerhouse” (Gee, 2013).  Such specious claims are hardly beneficial for political accountability through realistic economic voting.