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The looming debates

Posted by ealboim under Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links, Election 2011 Media commentary

Elly Alboim

Now that the debates are a week away, debate teams within the camps are getting ready for the final push on preparations. The leaders will probably end serious campaigning by Saturday and head into intensive rehearsal.

From a vantage point of having covered quite a few national and provincial leaders’ debates, having been on three debate preparation teams and having done real time public opinion research of debates along with friend and colleague David Herle, here are some observations over time.

The audiences

There are two very different audiences for televised debates during an election campaign.

The first group watches the debate personally in real time. Generally, that audience numbers about two to three million people, English and French.

The second group is much larger and comprises both non-voters and those less motivated to pay close attention to the campaign. This group is much more susceptible to being influenced by media perception of the debate.

It generally takes up to 48 hours for public opinion to settle after a debate. The first wave of reaction comes from those who watched. A second wave sometimes develops as a result of media coverage of the debate, wider awareness of overnight polling results and discussion with friends and relatives,

Media coverage itself sometimes changes to reflect momentum discovered in polling.

Those who watch

Again, there are generally two major groups.

Committed partisans in the audience watch debates looking for reinforcement of their opinions. They tend to see what they want to see. Changing their minds is a difficult thing to do.

The second part of the live audience comprises many truly ambivalent voters who are looking for help with their vote choice. They are not interested in the debate per se, but rather use the occasion as an opportunity to see the leaders directly and to evaluate who and what is on offer. For virtually all viewers, a debate is the first time in a campaign that they will see the leaders speak at length – very few voters spend any time attending events or seeking out extended all-news coverage.

Counter-intuitively, these viewers tend to ignore the traditional “debate” elements of argument and response and are often irritated by them. They tend not to understand or care about the strategy and tactics of debate and tend not to look for “winners” or “losers” – that is a media construct.

By definition these voters are “swing” voters. In Canada, swing voters tend to profile in asimilar way. In general, they tend to:

• Find the adversarialism of politics uncomfortable
• Penalize aggressive attack, anger and hostility
• Look for a positive, solutionist agenda of substance that is values based
o They apply a twin test:
o Does the leader “get it”? Does he or she provide a diagnostique and solution that make common sense?
o Is the leader properly motivated? Do they seem sincere? Is their proposition based on appropriate values?
• Try to evaluate “fitness” to lead, which for most is a combination of presence, fluidity and comfort of demeanour, reasonableness and civility

Because they tend not to care about “winners and losers”, they don’t award wins on “points.” They generally tend not to notice the kinds of exchanges that journalists focus on unless it is very obvious and one person is significantly disadvantaged. They are trying to narrow choices or come to a conclusion about their personal comfort with their potential choice for Prime Minister.

These people then tend to “road test” their conclusions with friends and relatives and to influence others. They tend to want to share both their experience of watching the debate and the degree to which they were influenced.


On the other hand, media look at debates as major news events. They look for positions and behaviours that “make news.” They want excitement, energy and conflict – the attractive elements of “news.” They seek “defining moments” and always try to decide who “won” – the dominant framing they employ to evaluate debates. Media routinely pump up the importance of debates and set the stakes very high in order to build interest.

Media views debates much the same way as politicians do. They reward aggressiveness, one-upmanship, the ability to grab and hold attention, the ability to put opponents on the defensive. Media assessment of winners is based on two criteria:

• Delivering a knock out punch and/or
• Exceeding expectations

If media believes it has a clear “winner”, it over-markets that conclusion and over-estimates its importance. It begins to invest in making the perceived momentum into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Because politicians are so used to dealing with the public through media as interlocutors, they tend to adopt the media framing and play to media expectations. They often underestimate the importance of the watching audience and its demands and expectations. In doing so, they often conduct themselves in a way that is precisely opposite to those demands and expectations.

Those who don’t watch

By definition, these people are not predisposed to use the debate as a vote determinant. Their bias is to presume not much of importance will happen.

Their exposure to the debate after it is concluded is limited to TV news broadcasts replay of key moments of harsh attack or turning points – media defined “electric moments” or “knock out punches.”

As a result, those who are uncommitted can be influenced by media assessments of who “won.” The uncommitted or loosely committed tend to develop their sense of electoral momentum from media coverage and sometimes the coverage of debates is important to that sense of building or diminishing momentum. If they perceive momentum, many of these people will take a second look at the candidate perceived to have done well.

However, if there is no clear “winner” or no “knockout punch” or “electric moments”, they tend to dismiss the event as irrelevant to their vote choice.

Very few debates end with a clear media-declared winner.

More often, media misses the conclusions developed by the watching audience because they are looking at the debate through an entirely different prism. If the polling shows a marked trend or change, media then revises its conclusions based on the polling. That, in turn, creates a second wave for the non-watching audience to evaluate.

What does all this mean to debate strategy?

The watching audience is, on balance, the primary audience for debates. It reaches the firmest and most durable conclusions in a way that tends to be unmediated by media. As well, these are the most motivated of voters who display more significant outreach and who “market” their views. Debate strategy and demeanour should be largely influenced by the demands and expectations of this group. This strategy seeks to exceed expectations among swing voters, show support in overnight polling and create a second wave of media assessment to influence non-watchers.

This logic suggests it is more prudent to try to neutralize media by depriving it of the kind of debating style and demeanour that it generally looks for. Trying to “win” on media terms means an aggressive strategy that seeks to create “defining” or “electric” moments. There is little way to control how media will determine who got the better of the moment. If media finds it hard to make “news” or call a “winner”, it will tend to minimize the importance of the event and its consequences. That will allow viewers to make up their minds without having to fight off a media frame that seeks to direct them to an outcome. This strategy often tends to favour challengers whose objective is to show fitness to govern. As indicated, voters, in making that judgment, tend to use criteria that have little to do with comparative debating skill or winning arguments.

Elly Alboim is an associate professor of journalism and a former CBC TV News Parliamentary Bureau Chief.

Reader's Comments

  1. Susan Reisler |

    Hi Elly,
    Love your site. On the topic of debates, for old time’s sake, you might want to check in to what Marhsall McLuhan had to say about television as a debating medium http://www2.marshallmcluhanspeaks.com/?video=0#
    It’s part of a wonderful McLuhan site http://www.marshallmcluhanspeaks.com