Marc Henry: Calgary mayor’s approval continues to decline

Marc Henry: Calgary mayor’s approval continues to decline
Marc Henry: Calgary mayor’s approval continues to decline

Our semi-annual Calgary Municipal Survey, conducted in mid-June this year, did not bring good news for Mayor Jyoti Gondek and many of her councillors. In fact, from a public opinion perspective, their path has been a bumpy, downward journey over the past three years.

The ratings for the mayor and the council are unprecedentedly low. They managed to break their own record for negative approval ratings, set in December last year.

The average rating for council members has dropped four points, now standing at just 33 percent approval, while 47 percent disapprove of their council member’s performance. Ouch!

The average council member is expected to generally receive somewhere in the mid to low 50% approval rating before 2021 (about one in five cannot rate their local representative).

In fairness, it should be noted that this rating for councilors is an average: Calgarians rate their ward councilors.

After all, there are fourteen of them and some score better than others. That average includes the ratings of council members like Gian-Carlo Carra, Sean Chu and Kourtney Penner, who have pitifully low ratings; Dan McLean, Andre Chabot and Sonya Sharp, who are ‘high and dry’, so to speak; and everything in between.

On the other hand, the mayor’s ratings are hers and hers alone. Just over a quarter (26 percent) of Calgary voters approve of Gondek, while nearly two-thirds (64 percent) give negative ratings to her performance.

Nearly half (48 percent) strongly disapprove of the mayor, compared to just seven percent. Before this council, a dip below 50 percent of support would have sent most mayors into panic.

One notable fact about Mayor Gondek’s assessments in June is that the survey was conducted during a municipal crisis: the failure of a major water main, necessitating water restrictions in Calgary and many surrounding communities.

In times of crisis, the public tends to “align itself with the leader.” Politicians who lead capably during an emergency are often rewarded with public support.

In 2013, Mayor Nenshi’s leadership during the Calgary floods increased his popularity among voters.

During the pandemic, there was a period (albeit a very short one) when Prime Minister Trudeau was more popular in Alberta than Prime Minister Kenney!

This crisis, no such boost for Gondek – she even lost four percentage points in approval since last December. Which begs the question, why? There are several possibilities.

It could be due to the nature of the crisis itself. A major mains outage in the feeder is not a natural disaster, act of war, pandemic or the like. Although we do not yet know the cause, this could probably have been prevented. Or at least you hope it can be avoided in the future (as I sit here writing on my second day without a shower).

Calgarians may not believe the mayor has handled the crisis well. I’m not sure if that’s the case. The first few days were, and I try to be diplomatic, a bit shaky, but since the official declaration of a local state of emergency, Gondek has been a steady hand.

As Calgary’s first female mayor, is there latent gender discrimination among the electorate? This question comes up every now and then. The answer is not really.

There is no doubt that Gondek suffers from a significant gender gap in that men are significantly more negative than women, but it is similar to the gender gap in Mayor Nenshi’s ratings in the final months of his last term. Voter age and partisanship are more relevant intervening variables.

Or, and this is the most plausible explanation, any positive “boost” the mayor could have gotten in tackling this crisis was offset by unpopular decisions in the previous six months. A few come to mind: the debacle over the single-use bag ordinance, the passage of a blanket rezoning after a month-long public hearing and the sending of property tax bills.

There is probably causality. Our June survey found that among council members, those who saw the most negative turn in their ratings also favored outright redistricting.

For Gondek, if she plans to run again, she will lose her runway. For a sitting politician, trying to shape public opinion in a four-year election cycle is like working with wet cement.

It took Gondek almost three years to reach the low point she is in now. It becomes increasingly difficult to change the public’s mind as their opinions harden in the run-up to a campaign.

With numbers like these, Jyoti Gondek’s re-election prospects, if she runs, are quite bleak. She’s a gamble, barring a significant vote split in October 2025. That said, with such poor numbers, there could be plenty of candidates waiting in the weeds who could split the vote for her. After all, you only need one more vote than the person in second place to win.

Marc Henry is president of ThinkHQ, a Canada-based market and opinion research firm, and a partner at the consulting firm Integrated. Strategic. Partners.