#onpoli newsletter - What do the media get wrong about debates?

Let’s do an analysis ... of the analysis
By Eric Bombicino - Published on Oct 10, 2019
Federal party leaders at the English-language debate in Gatineau, Que., on October 7. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)



Hello, #onpoli people,

They came, they saw, they talked over one another, and garbled their lines as if they’d been rehearsing them for weeks. Any high school drama teacher — except maybe for the one on the stage — would barely give our federal party leaders’ performances a passing grade. There was no clear-cut winner, no knockout blow, and the long-held tradition of “meh” oratory in Canada was respectfully observed in Monday’s English-language debate. (Seriously, you couldn’t fill a minivan with the number of truly compelling orators we’ve had in Canadian political history.)

But you’ve probably been deluged with post-debate analysis by now, so let’s not do that in this newsletter. Instead let’s do an analysis ... of the analysis. That’s right: we’re getting meta today! What do the media get wrong in their post-mortems of leaders’ debates?

Our guest on the podcast this week has some unique insight into that question. Elly Alboim has run prep for six different leaders’ debates, including for Stéphane Dion and Paul Martin. He’s also been on the other side of the equation, having produced a number of debates as the former head of the CBC’s parliamentary bureau — including one with Steve Paikin at the helm.

So what does Alboim think? To start, he disagrees with almost everything I wrote in that first paragraph. Not the points I made, but why I made them in the first place.

Voters and media: the great divide

“Voters and media look at debates in very, very different ways,” Alboim said. We, the media, are guilty of looking for moments that are the equivalent of “punches and jabs,” Alboim explained to Steve. “All of the metaphors are about boxing or about football.”

Guilty as charged. When I think back to leaders’ debates of yesteryear, my brain fills with exactly those kinds of moments.

Like Jack Layton on Michael Ignatieff’s spotty attendance record in Parliament in the 2011 debate: “If you want to be prime minister, you better learn how to be a member of Parliament first,” he said. “You know, most Canadians, if they don't show up for work, they don't get a promotion.”


Or how about Brian Mulroney’s aggressive 1984 takedown of John Turner’s defence that he had no option but to accept former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s patronage appointments. “You had an option, sir, to say ‘no,’ and you chose to say ‘yes’ to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal party,” Mulroney said, going for the jugular. “That, sir, if I may say respectfully, that is not good enough for Canadians.”


Two men stand, pointing fingers at each other.
John Turner and Brian Mulroney exchange barbs in the 1988 federal leaders' debate. (Source: Pool/thecanadianencyclopedia.ca)

Then there’s John Turner’s return fire in ’88 over the free trade agreement. “With one signature of a pen, you’ve … thrown us into the north-south influence of the United States and will reduce us, I am sure, to a colony of the United States. Because when the economic levers go, the political independence is sure to follow.”


For me, it’s less like boxing or football, and more like Adam West’s Batman.

But according to Alboim, I’m wrong. “Most of the audience are really not looking for that,” he said. Undecided voters — voters that leaders can actually win over versus the partisans whose minds are already made up — are looking for three things instead, he said: whom they can trust, which policy platform they like, and, most important, “what solutions they think people are prepared to put on the table.”

As much as I may love a good debate dust-up — boom, pow, ka-biff! — Alboim said that “all the research shows that the more adversarial the debate, the less interested the average voter is in it.” Fizzle, flop, ka-piffle.

The media feedback loop

“Do we really have it that wrong in trying to understand what the public needs or wants from these things?” Steve asked Alboim in this episode.

“Yup. Absolutely wrong,” Alboim said, not mincing words. “It’s a two-step process.”

“People watching it are not looking for those moments and, frankly, tend not to recognize them when they happen.” That’s step one.

“Media then pounces on them and writes about them or speaks about them, and then, over time, they start to frame this in terms of who won and who lost. And that sometimes does affect the way voters think on the rebound,” Alboim said. That’s step two.

It ends up becoming a feedback loop. People come out with one impression of the debate, then they read or watch the deluge of analysis, and start wondering whether they got it right. That’s when the gap is closed, Alboim said, and when what the media thinks mattered to voters in the debates can actually start to matter to voters.

It doesn’t matter if you win or lose

So those big attack moments might not make as much impact on voters. But surely winning or losing still counts, right? That’s often the biggest focus for us media hacks after the debate.

Not necessarily, said Alboim. “I can tell you that there are lots of debates that I’ve watched or been involved in where a declared winner has nothing to do with the outcome of the election.”

He pointed to Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario experience. In her first debate in 2014, she was nervous and “didn’t do all that well,” Alboim said, but she ended up winning the provincial election that year. The next time around was the opposite: she was “magnificent” in the 2018 debates, but lost the election. Her party wound up securing just seven seats.

And let’s not forget Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump in 2016. Clinton won all three of those debates, hands down. But you know the rest: Clinton won the popular vote, but lost Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by a combined 79,316 votes, paving the way for Donald Trump’s victory.

What do you think? Did Monday’s debate help you decide your vote? Or was it a whole lot of fizzle, flop, ka-piffle? Write in at onpolitics@tvo.org to let me know.

That’s all for this week!

#onpoli producer





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