Illustration by Brett Lamb/Torontoist.
Polls, it is important to remember, do not measure reality but perceptions thereof. The best we can hope to learn from a poll is what people think is going on, not what actually is. Last week, jaws dropped around the city as an Ipsos Reid poll, commissioned by Global TV, revealed that David Miller’s approval rating had fallen to a new low of 29%. What this tells us is that our mayor is failing to impress, not that he is failing.
More startling than the mayor’s approval rating are some inconsistencies in the views that Torontonians—or at least the ones who were surveyed in the course of taking this poll—hold. Now that the initial furor surrounding Miller’s polling numbers has subsided, we can pay these their proper attention. For instance, consider that while 29% approve or strongly approve of the mayor’s overall performance only 21% believe that he deserves to be re-elected—8% of respondents approve of the job the mayor is doing but nonetheless don’t think he deserves to be re-elected. People think about as poorly of Council: only 27% approve of Council and 12% think it spends their tax dollars wisely. Meanwhile 44% agree or strongly agree with the claim that the city is on the right track. This raises the question: from whom do these poll respondents think the city takes direction, if not the mayor and Council?
In addition to the inconsistency, there is also simply a troubling degree of ignorance about the state of affairs in our city. Twenty-one per cent of Torontonians think that crime is the single most important issue we are facing, despite the fact that crime rates have been falling for years. (It is so far 11.3% lower this year than last.) Let us say this, unequivocally: crime, whenever and wherever it occurs, is tragic, and it is incumbent on a city to take all reasonable, prudent, and effective measures to combat it. There are Torontonians who are victims of crime every day, and we in no way mean to make light of the gravity of those experiences. But crime is not, not, a worsening problem in Toronto.
Crime rates in 2009 (to date) compared with the same period in 2008. Data courtesy of the Toronto Police Service; graph by David Topping/Torontoist.
And now for what we found the most startling figure of all: three times as many people are concerned with crime as with transportation—this after Transit City, streetcar purchases, bike lane disputes, and the apparently civilization-ending decision to sometimes, every so often (but not oftener) allow non-drivers to, you know, get around too. Transportation has been the centrepiece of Miller’s second term in office, and Transit City is intended to be his major legacy project. Yet people simply aren’t biting. Like his poor approval ratings, this signifies that the mayor, and councillors who work on his key files, are failing to speak effectively to Torontonians: David Miller’s issues are simply not getting traction. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are the wrong issues—we happen to think they are the right ones—but that they aren’t getting purchase in the public’s consciousness. (Taxation and government spending was the issue of greatest concern, coming in at 28%, another indication that the mayor is failing to convince residents that City services are valuable enough to warrant being funded, or failing to adequately explain the relationship between funding and taxation.)
For this we can, and do, fault both the mayor and his communications staff. Part of a politician’s job is to lead by persuasion, to advocate for what he or she thinks matters, and to provide a case in support of those judgements. This the mayor and his office have clearly failed to do. His handling of the recent city workers’ strike was similarly clumsy: he missed some early opportunities to establish precedents in prior labour and salary negotiations (as with the proposed salary freeze for Council), over-promised what was possible in negotiations with CUPE 79 and 416 by suggesting that an entrenched benefit could be made to vanish in one fell swoop, and failed to accurately read the mood of the public on several occasions.
The biggest charge that can be laid at the mayor’s doorstep pertains to how his agenda and actions have been communicated, not to their merits or substance. These failings are significant, and they may prove fatal to his bid for re-election. But judging from the most recent polling data, those are not the crimes for which he will be convicted. The mayor, instead, is facing condemnation on false charges, based on the public’s failure to understand or accurately assess the significance of the actions he has taken and the policies he has pursued. Another mayor could have enacted the same policies and pursued the same goals as has Miller, sold them much more effectively, and been much better placed to win a re-election bid than Miller currently is. That would be an ideal mayoral candidate. One who will pursue different policy goals (who will, for instance, be “tough” on our already diminishing crime and have no ambitions with regards to transportation) simply because they are new, or easier to communicate effectively, would not be.