28 September 2011

Do debates matter? #nlpoli #nlvotes

Debates matter but not in the way some people think.

For starters they have nothing to do with knock-out blows.  That’s a media invention they use along with horse-race reporting in order to cover campaigns.  it’s a simple enough idea full of potential drama, but the fact is that debates are seldom if ever about the telling blow or the fatal wound to a campaign.

The evidence speaks for itself.  In the past four decades, only one American presidential debate produced a significant switch in a candidate’s polling numbers. 

In Canada, there have been a couple of points that stand out – Mulroney and Turner in the 1980s – but for the most part, people would be hard-pressed to find a debate moment that dramatically lifted one campaign or destroyed another in a national election.

Strategy is about deploying assets as part of a co-ordinated plan to reinforce your strengths and exploit your opponents’ weaknesses in order to win. 

Debates are part of the tools strategists in a campaign use.


Everything else is for the punters and for amateurs.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the three political parties will take part on a raft of debates.  The parties will decide which to take part in and who to send on behalf of the party based on a bunch of factors. 

The leaders often don’t turn up for anything other than the NTV televised debate.  That is the major event that offers plenty of free advertising – via news coverage in the run-up and especially in the time afterward.  The debate gives the leader a chance to stream prepared messages and toss out a couple of lines that may snag some media attention.

These days debates like the NTV leaders’ gabfest are about as risky as breaking wind.  The parties spend so much time negotiating the rules in order to avoid running any risk that anyone can do anything.   The whole thing is theatre and campaigns work hard to agree upon a format that protects their main player from anything even vaguely approaching a campaign-losing gaffe or death blow by an opponent.



Nothing could be further from the truth.

Other debates offer similar value – for their advertising spinoffs – and unless the event has some sort of amazing potential previously unforeseen in the history of human civilization, major parties will send substitutes. 

A health care forum will get the party’s health care critic or rising star. One on the economy will get the finance critic or the development guru to give him or her the chance to score a bit of a profile.

The fact that Lorraine Michael is attending all the debates tells you, by the by, just exactly how thin the NDP candidate pool is and how important it is for them to get as much free media for Lorraine as they can.  Campaigns with cash and other resources don’t need to pack everything into the one candidate and a minivan.

As for Aylward and the Liberals you really have to wonder two things.  First, you have to wonder why the Liberals sent Aylward to debate health care when they have a couple of subject matter experts as candidates. Second, you have to wonder why the Liberal backroom gang left Aylward in the Board of Trade session until the last minute so that the last minute substitution of Dumaresque looked foolish.  Hint:  he didn’t pull out because he suddenly noticed Kathy wasn’t there.

If the number of debates proliferate in future campaigns, they will get to be like the begging letters from every special interest group on the planet.  They will become yet another incredible drain on resources that serves only to give the interest group some free publicity, convince their members the group is working, or both.

The punters and the media pay attention to them – think about Danny’s begging letters to Ottawa – but the letters usually get pro forma statements of the party platform rather than personalised attention.

In general, campaigns will send someone along to a debate unless the thing is a drain on resources and can be chopped without costing anything. Even the risk of a couple of hours of bad news stories can be worth it if the debate does not serve the campaign’s strategy.

Starting in 2003, the provincial Conservatives made it a policy to refuse to take part in any district debates, full stop. They did that largely because avoiding these small events cuts down on the potential that one of the lesser lights in the campaign firmament trips up in his or her own ego and takes the campaign off its pre-planned message track for a day or two.

And every other claim about debates is for the punters, the amateurs and people with airtime to fill.

It’s like the idea that somehow the election outcome is a foregone conclusion,  Kathy Dunderdale needs to stand pat and the debate is a big deal for Kevin Aylward and Lorraine Michael in the battle for second place.

The idea there is a race for second is entirely a media fiction.

It doesn’t exist. 

Never did.

The NDP got a huge boost from the media in the election run-up.  But the editors and producers were just looking for a convenient – read simple - narrative they could build a story thread around. 

They ate up the NDP’s federal election boost and then, when a couple of polls appeared to show a surge in NDP popularity provincially, off reporters went to the horse-race.

But look at what the NDP actually turned up with in the days since the campaign began. They obviously have no money.  Their radio spots are the stuff of a St. John’s municipal election campaign – done badly on the cheap -  not the usually polished and effective NDP provincial election fare.  The backdrop for the platform launch was a painted piece of sign board propped against a wall.

Lorraine Michael traveled outside St. John’s once so far.  That was to one of two seats outside Michael’s own seat where the Dippers stand a chance of any success.  She might make it to Labrador but the party simply lacks the money and organization to mount a campaign that threatens to do any more than grab headlines.

And don’t forget, the NDP are only polling around 18% – at best – in any of the recent polling.  That’s only slightly better than the 14% the NDP garnered in the late 1980s when they held two seats in the province.

Nothing points to any radical NDP anything, least of all the chance that Lorraine Michael might pull off a magical Jack Layton and vault into the opposition leader’s job.  Lorraine ain’t Jack by a long shot and the provincial NDP aren’t their federal cousins.

People say there is a race for second even where there isn’t one for the same reason some politicians talk about “a go forward basis” or “files” or “piece” this and “piece” that. They think it makes them sound like they know what they are talking about.

So when you watch the debate tonight, err, if you watch the debate tonight, ignore the political analysts.  If you hear words like “risk”, “race for second place” and so on blow raspberries at them and laugh.

Just watch the three leaders.  Notice what they say, how they say it and how often they say it. 

Then on Thursday, we can have a chat about the campaign strategies of the three parties and what is really going on out there in this dull-as-dishwater affray.

- srbp -