Rocco Rossi has dropped out of Toronto's mayoral race, conceding his ideas are failing to gain traction in a mayoral campaign that's become a battle between two candidates tussling over an angry, polarized electorate.
"Despite my efforts to focus this race around issues and ideas that I feel matter, it has become clear that the majority of Torontonians have parked their support with one of two candidates: Mr. Smitherman or Mr. Ford," he said at his campaign headquarters on Avenue Road Wednesday night. The announcement comes hours after an Ipsos-Reid poll placed him at 4 per cent – far behind frontrunners Rob Ford and George Smitherman, who appear to be in a dead heat.
"In essence, the choice for mayor is coming down to those who want to stop what Mr. Ford describes as the gravy train and those who want to stop Mr. Ford."
Mr. Rossi said he isn't endorsing anyone, and called on Toronto voters to take a good, hard look at the two men now in the home stretch in their marathon to the mayor's chair -- and force them to answer tough questions about what they'd do as mayor, rather than scare people about what their opponent might do.
"I didn't enter this race intending to cut any deal, and I'll leave it the same way," he said, choking up slightly. Several members of the campaign team grew teary-eyed during his statement. "I thank every one of you who took the time to tell me how you want the city to change."
For 10 months, Mr. Rossi ran a campaign branding himself as an outsider in a race populated by "career politicians" out to "bribe voters with their own money."
He resisted repeated calls to pull out of the campaign after polling for months in the single digits. He chalked his lack of voter support in the polls to a lack of name recognition.
After former fifth-place rival Sarah Thomson dropped out to throw her support behind Mr. Smitherman, Mr. Rossi said he wasn't worried about the pressure to withdraw himself – "I exert pressure," he said at the time.
The final decision came down to an agonizing several hours of deliberation after the campaign team got a "sneak peak" at Wednesday's Ipsos-Reid poll late Tuesday night, said campaign manager Bernie Morton.
Mr. Rossi consulted multiple strategists, including a 20-person advisory team, and had some "quiet time" with his wife, Mr. Morton said, before coming to a conclusion.
There was near unanimity, save for one person who suggested waiting for upcoming polls that might have brighter outlooks for Mr. Rossi's campaign.
"He said 'No,'" Mr. Morton said. "What he didn't want to do was distract from what the campaign is leaning towards, which is a showdown between two different candidates about something he didn't really want to engage in that dialogue, something anti-someone or, in Mr. Smitherman's case, people holding their nose and say, 'We're going to support you because we don't like the other guy.'
"By 6 I think he knew he was going to be releasing his team. By 6:30 I think he had made his decision."
In many ways, Mr. Rossi suffered from being in a "Ford versus not-Ford" race where he was neither Mr. Ford nor the candidate voters perceived to be the anti-Rob Ford.
Mr. Rossi has repeatedly resisted calls for him to drop out of the race, arguing that as an underdog candidate with little name recognition his sensible policies have momentum among voters.
Those calls came most recently from people who had thrown their support behind Mr. Rossi previously: Writer and journalist Peter C. Newman, who had endorsed Mr. Rossi publicly earlier this year, issued an open letter endorsing Mr. Smitherman as the candidate most likely to beat Mr. Ford – and called on Mr. Rossi to withdraw.
"I think Rocco would be a good mayor if he had a chance, but he doesn't. And I don't want it to be on his conscience that he elected Rob Ford," Mr. Newman said in an interview Wednesday, a few hours before Mr. Rossi made his announcement. "I mean, I've gone to his speeches, I was there at the Board of Trade, I was there at a couple of others. And, first of all, he attracted full houses. Secondly he got a lot of applause. But his percentages haven't moved. I don't understand it."
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, whose centre-right policies have often aligned with ideas Mr. Rossi has brought forward, said Mr. Rossi's name doesn't come up at the door in his Don Valley ward – instead, he's seeing a polarization between Mr. Ford's supporters and those who'd do anything to ensure the Etobicoke councillor doesn't get into the mayor's chair.
"Voters appreciate his campaign and believe that he's run a good, thoughtful campaign, and a credible campaign, a solid campaign. But so far, for some reason, it's not translating into support. ... They wonder about whether he'll win or not."
Mr. Rossi, who has been polling in the single digits for the past several months of the campaign, has been under increasing pressure to drop out as the election date nears and the mayoral campaign becomes a two-horse race between Mr. Ford and Mr. Smitherman. He overhauled his campaign in September, signing on senior strategists Bernie Morton and Warren Kinsella and coming out with bold proposals – including an idea for a tunnel linking the Allen Expressway with the Gardiner downtown – and an ad campaign using mafia stereotypes to play off his Italian heritage.
The tunnel idea was widely panned as an unfeasible reincarnation of the failed 1970s suggestion to turn Spadina Avenue into an expressway, however, and the ad campaign hit a sour note with many in the Italo-Canadian community.
The Ipsos-Reid poll conducted for Newstalk 1010 showed Mr. Smitherman and Mr. Ford in a dead heat, with the former deputy premier polling at 31 per cent among those surveyed, compared to 30 per cent for the Etobicoke councillor. That lead grew to 38 per cent for Mr. Smitherman over 32 per cent for Mr. Ford for people who said they're likely to vote on Oct. 25.
Mr. Rossi's campaign team lost several of its own staff this week to Mr. Smitherman's camp, including former campaign manager Sachin Aggarwal.
Sarah Thomson dropped out of the race earlier this month, throwing her support behind Mr. Smitherman after trailing in recent polls.