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The potential impact of the debates

Posted by aturcotte under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links

André Turcotte

As I was driving my kids to school this morning, I heard radio talk show hosts musing that the upcoming Leaders’ Debates “may be the most important ones we have witnessed in a long time.” For an election campaign largely devoid of excitement so far, the prospect of oratorical fireworks is both needed and appealing. But what do we know about the impact of Leaders’ Debates on electoral outcome?

In general, scholarship on the topic suggests that the impact of debates is minimal. While some leaders have experienced a surge in support after a good performance – Mulroney in 1984, Turner in 1988, Charest in 1997 – it is generally suggested that the positive impact is short-lived and dissipates by the time voters head to the polls. This is the main reason Leaders’ Debates are scheduled well-ahead of Election Day. However, we can identify some interesting dynamics when we evaluate this event through the prism of partisanship.

If we look back to the 2008 Leaders’ Debates, we know, from the Canadian National Election Study data, that 38% of Canadians watched the English Debate and 47% of Quebecers watched the French Debates. As it is customary, media coverage will focus on ‘who won?” In 2008, 28% of those who watched the English Debate gave the nod to Stephen Harper, ahead of Elizabeth May at 24% and Jack Layton at 19%. Only 8% favored Stéphane Dion. Among those who watched the French Debate, 34% said that Dion performed best, ahead of Gilles Duceppe (24%). Both Harper (7%) and Layton (5%) were far behind. But if we want to better understand the potential impact of the debates, it is more insightful to examine how the leaders performed with their own supporters.

Arguably, Stephen Harper consolidated his support with a strong performance in the 2008 English Debate. Specifically, 57% of Conservative voters thought Harper performed best – well ahead of all the other leaders. Both Dion and Layton were unable to do the same with their respective voters. Among Liberal voters, 26% believed May performed best, slightly ahead of Layton at 23%. Dion came in third (17%) amongst his own supporters and lost all hope of salvaging his campaign in English Canada. May also outperformed Layton among NDP supporters (38% vs. 31%). Needless to say that Liberal and NDP strategists will be glad to see the Green Party Leader excluded from this year’s debates.

In Quebec, Dion stopped further erosion in Liberal support with a stronger performance. In fact, 51% of Liberal voters in Quebec favored Dion at the time. The same proportion of Bloc voters gave the edge to Gilles Duceppe. Harper’s performance likely hindered Conservative growth in la belle province with a poor performance amongst Quebec Conservative voters (only 10% thought he performed best with 38% favoring Dion) and was poorly evaluated by Bloc, Liberal, and NDP voters.

With all eyes on them on Tuesday and Wednesday, Harper, Ignatieff, Layton and Duceppe will try to inject some life into a lifeless campaign. Party strategists will be paying close attention to how the leaders are seen through the eyes of their respective supporters.

Andre Turcotte is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication.