Andrew Tumilty: How many candidates is too many?
What sort of mandate will the next mayor have, if they win the election with less than 20 per cent of the vote?
By: Andrew Tumilty
Nominations for Toronto’s upcoming by-election for mayor open on April 3rd, just under a week away. It appears that voters in Toronto will have a veritable buffet of credible candidates to choose from, while in the last two elections the choice was essentially John Tory, or not.
Most of you won’t be eligible to vote in that election, and probably don’t closely follow municipal politics in the Centre of the Universe. And fair enough. But there’s still an interesting question here, and it’s one the Toronto experience can illustrate: how many candidates is too many?
You may not think there is such a thing — that more is always better. Okay, sure. But if you think such an open field is an exciting opportunity to present voters with a wide-range of choices, think about the best restaurants where you have ever eaten. Did they have a menu with five things they did really well or 20 things that were okay?
Before asking if there are too many credible candidates, though, let’s try and define what credible means in this context. Municipal candidates, anywhere, need to have some degree of independent name recognition, without the guilt/trust by association that would be conferred on them by running provincially or federally for a political party. They also need to have some sort of network in place for staff, volunteers, donors and the campaign infrastructure required to make it to Election Day.
There are currently up to eight candidates who fit the description to some degree, and have either declared that they are running or have publicly suggested that they are exploring the idea. This list includes — in alphabetical order — former councillor Ana Bailao, current councillor Brad Bradford, former councillor, mayoral candidate and MP Olivia Chow, current councillor Stephen Holyday, current MPP Mitzie Hunter, former councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, current councillor Josh Matlow, and former Police Chief Mark Saunders. Charitably, you could add to that list former Toronto Sun columnist Anthony Furey, as well as the second- and third-place candidates from the 2022 election, Gil Penalosa and Chloe Brown, respectively.
An election can be about ideas, debate, policy, and promises. It is also very much about math, and that is where the prospect of so many viable candidates becomes more of a challenge to democracy than a compliment.
To start, before we get to the impact on voters, an overly crowded field is an enormous challenge for the campaigns. If you’re the second far-right candidate or the third centrist in the race, how do you distinguish your message and ideas? Will a candidate from one end of the spectrum end up in the mayor’s office because there were four candidates at the other end that were indistinguishable to the voters and split their potential vote? For historical context, see the People's Front of Judeau vs. the Judean People's Front.
Whatever your point of view on John Tory’s time in office — including how it ended — his broad support across the city in elections is undeniable. In the three elections that he won, he received between 40 and 63 per cent of the popular vote. In 2018, Tory received more votes for mayor than all 25 members of council won collectively.
That type of result is a strong mandate for a mayor to work from, and something that should be even more desirable for the winner of this election given the new “strong mayor” powers bestowed by the province. The prospect of so many credible candidates on the ballot could make such broad city-wide support impossible for any candidate to reach.
In fact, the more candidates of note that are in the race, the smaller the percentage of the vote you might need to win. Someone who may not like their chances in a four-person race may look at a race with six or more candidates, and make a different assessment of their odds at winning.
What sort of mandate will the next mayor have, if they win the election with less than 20 per cent of the vote? What battles will they face to get enough council votes on side for their agenda? Can someone really claim to be a “strong mayor” and use those powers, if only one out of every five voters chose them? Note that I’m not asking about eligible voters — that’s a different calculator. I mean of the voters who actually showed up.
Toronto’s election for mayor is literally the biggest in the country. More people vote directly for the mayor of Toronto than for the prime minister of Canada or the premier of any province. Rather than electing a mayor that appeals to just enough people from a small slice of the electorate to win, Toronto deserves a mayor with broad enough support to advocate for as many people across the city as possible.
If candidates in this election realize they cannot be that mayor, hopefully they have the humility to step aside, and help elect a mayor who can.
Andrew Tumilty has crafted strategic communications on election campaigns for all three orders of government, and was War Room Director to John Tory in 2018 and 2022. He is a senior consultant for strategic communications and issues management with Enterprise Canada in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewTumilty.
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