Toronto Mayoral Election 2023: Uncharted Territory in Canadian Politics
A few thoughts on polling in this high-stakes, unpredictable race with a crowded field of low recognition candidates and a short campaign period.
As the 2023 Toronto Mayoral race begins, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: this election is unlike any other in Toronto or even Canadian history.
Consider these variables:
The election is likely to see upwards of 10 candidates, all with decent experience and claims to be the next Mayor.
The issue set (affordability, public safety, and mobility) is going to be the focus of all the campaigns.
Nominations open today and election day is June 26. That’s 84 days for a candidate who registers today to raise money, build a campaign organization, raise their profile, and turn out the vote in a city with close to 1.9 million electors. For comparison, in the last municipal election, John Tory had more than double the number of days (175) to achieve the same outcome.
Municipal elections in Ontario are non-partisan. There will be no party labels to serve as cues for voters.
These four factors pose new challenges for candidates, voters, and those observing the election. And for poll watchers like all those reading this - it can have big implications for the value of early polling.
Let's break down the factors that make this race so unique and what it means for polling and election observers.
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Low Name Recognition
In this mayoral race, the majority of the candidates running for office lack the name recognition typically seen in previous elections. Olivia Chow and Mark Saunders likely have higher name recognition, but I suspect their images aren’t well-defined.
Others like Brad Bradford, Ana Bailao, Josh Matlow, and Mitizie Hunter are all current or former elected officials, but I’d be shocked if more than 50% of electors even know who they are. That’s not to say none of them can win or that Chow or Saunders are the front-runners. It means the typical trial heat poll (horse race) is likely meaningless at this point.
This factor presents a significant challenge for them to gain traction and win over voters. Without a well-established public profile, these candidates will need to work harder than ever to differentiate themselves, build trust, and ultimately, win votes. And they will need to do it quickly.
Adding to the complexity of the race, there is a large number of candidates vying for the mayoral seat. This crowded field makes it difficult for candidates to differentiate themselves, and for voters to sift through each candidate's platform and make an informed choice.
There’s an incentive for candidates to stand out, make a splash, or take controversial positions to get noticed. A candidate won’t need to win over 50% of the electorate to become mayor and may not even need to win more than a third of the vote to win the election.
Short Time Period
With a such tight timeline to raise money, build a campaign organization, and raise their profiles, all of the candidates face an uphill battle. This time crunch adds pressure to an already challenging situation, forcing campaigns to operate at a breakneck pace and potentially make strategic errors in their rush to reach voters.
Shared Issue Set
Further complicating matters, most of the candidates are running on the same set of issues - affordability, housing, public safety, and transportation. With little policy differentiation, it will be challenging for candidates to distinguish themselves from one another, and voters may find it difficult to decide which candidate best aligns with their priorities.
What are the Implications for Public Polling in the Election?
Given the unique nature of this election, horse race polling will be of limited use in predicting the outcome until closer to election day. The low name recognition and crowded field mean that early polling numbers are unlikely to provide an accurate picture of how the race will unfold.
It would be far more valuable to understand what, if anything, people know and think about the candidates or to report vote intention based on their familiarity with the candidates. This would be a better indicator of how the election might ultimately end, as opposed to where things stand now based entirely on low name recognition and undefined candidates.
History can provide us with a few examples of why initial horse race polling in a wide-open municipal election might be misleading or a least non-predictive.
2003 Toronto Mayoral Election
In the 2003 Toronto mayoral election, early polls had former pre-amalgamation Toronto mayor Barbara Hall well ahead. Former MP John Nunziata was in a distant second followed by John Tory (yes, that John Tory) and David Miller way back in the low single digits. On election night, David Miller won 43% of the vote, followed by John Tory at 38%. Hall finished third with just 9% of the vote and Nunziata even further back at 5%. The two “front-runners” at the start came nowhere near winning by the end.
Hall and Nunziata had much higher name recognition than downtown councillor Miller or business executive John Tory and so early polls overestimated their support and appeal.
2010 Calgary Mayoral Election
In the 2010 Calgary mayoral election that elected Naheed Nenshi to his first of three terms in office,
A mid-September poll (one month before Eday) conducted by Leger found McIver ahead by double digits over former TV news anchor Barb Higgins. Nenshi was well back in third at 8%.
I can’t find any other publicly available polls, but I suspect no one took Nenshi seriously for a long time, despite the fact that if you had polled people about his attributes, his vision, or his profile - they would have found it appealing suggesting someone like him could have won - even when he was polling around 1% in early polls.
2022 Ottawa Mayoral Election
More recently, I was closely involved with Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe’s (Mark is a close friend) winning election in the 2022 municipal election. Mark registered in late June and the first public poll of the campaign had him trailing Catherine McKenney by 20 points.
In fact, not a single publicly released poll (from Mainstreet Research or Nanos Research) had Sutcliffe ahead despite him ultimately winning by 13 percentage points (51.4% to 37.9%).
Even the final Mainstreet Research poll, released days before the vote, had Sutcliffe trailing by 4.
When I conducted our first poll for the Sutcliffe campaign in July, we learned the following:
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