The debate about having more debates

It’s hard to disagree with Andrea Horwath’s call for more leaders’ debates this campaign. While the five of them she proposes might be a little excessive, one is clearly too few. With only a single 90-minute sprint through the issues, it’s just too easy for each leader to stick to his or her talking points.

Unfortunately, it’s also hard to imagine there will be a significant change to the debate routine, because there are just too many hurdles.

One of the usual problems with trying to have the leaders share the stage more often during a campaign is that it’s not perceived to be in the interest of whichever one holds power to begin with. One of the advantages of being the incumbent premier, if you know how to use it, is that you get to look reassuringly premier-like on the campaign trail; appearing on stage as an equal with the other two leaders levels that playing field. It’s also not all that advantageous spending more time than necessary being ganged up on.

Kathleen Wynne has some tendency to approach these sorts of decisions unconventionally, so it’s possible she’d be more open to extra debates than Dalton McGuinty was. It’s probably worth noting that whereas in 2011 Mr. McGuinty was the only one of the three leaders to take a pass on a separate debate in the province’s north, Ms. Wynne challenged the other leaders to such a meeting this time around.

But even if all three leaders did want to square off before a province-wide audience three or four or five times, there’s another major barrier: the consortium of television networks that turns over its airwaves to such events.

Those who’ve been involved in negotiations about debate logistics will attest that the broadcasters aren’t all that enthusiastic about even one debate, because it means pre-empting usual programing and losing advertising revenue. So there’s not much chance they’d be willing to do it a second or third time, let alone a fourth or fifth.

It’s frankly not entirely clear in this day and age why a debate needs to be on CBC, CTV and Global simultaneously. Once upon a time the saturation may have compelled some viewers to watch simply because they didn’t have other options, but that’s not the way most of us consume media any more. So presumably the debates could just go on one station at a time, and people who wanted to watch could watch.

In the heat of campaigns, though, all concerned have a tendency to default back to what’s been done traditionally. Unless there’s already been some work done to overhaul the debate format – and there have been no indications to that effect – it probably won’t happen now.

Where do voters get their politics news? TV and the Internet, mostly

In this new digital age, how do you reach voters? Increasingly, parties need to go online. But for now TV is still king.



Abacus conducted the survey by talking to 2,002 Canadians over the age of 18 through a mix of online panels and live telephone interviews. The data were demographically weighted in line with the general population, and the margin of error is plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The poll was conducted in January and February of this year.

Ask The Globe: Do we, as PM Harper has stated, have the cleanest electricity grid in Canada?

For the duration of the election, The Globe is answering your questions – from fact-checking leaders’ statements to digging deep into policies and promises. Have a question? Tweet it with #AskTheGlobe

Globe reader Greg Bennett asks: Do we, as PM Harper has stated, have the cleanest electricity grid in Canada?

Energy reporter Shawn McCarthy says yes – it’s true. But the answer is a little more complicated:

Conservatives’ attacks on Mulcair not too effective, survey suggests

As explained in today’s story, new survey data from Innovative Research Group suggests the Liberals are having some success with advertising rebutting Conservative attacks against Justin Trudeau. But of course, they wouldn’t need to do so if those attacks hadn’t been effective in branding the Liberal Leader as a “not ready” lightweight to begin with.

To the much more limited extent that the Tories are going after NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, it appears they’re struggling to find an angle that’s similarly effective.

In the same early-August  survey in which it found the Liberals’ new ad has a significant impact on those who see it, the polling company also tested a pair of anti-Mulcair Conservative ads. Both use the same “job interview” format as the ones against Mr. Trudeau, but the attempts to cast Mr. Mulcair as an opportunistic career politician seemed to have more limited effect.

In fact, when Innovative Research screened the first of those spots (above) – asking respondents a series of questions both before and after they saw it – it found no statistically significant impact on either voting intentions or impressions of Mr. Mulcair relative to the other party leaders.

The second ad, which is slightly more focused on alleging Mr. Mulcair has wasted taxpayers’ money and less so on using his longevity in politics and his past as a (Quebec) Liberal to suggest he’s an opportunist, proved somewhat more effective. Among respondents who hadn’t seen it before, support for the NDP went down by five percentage points after they saw it, although it’s not clear whether that went to the Tories or the Liberals. And the share of respondents who chose Mr. Mulcair as the leader who most “cares about people like me” went down by seven points.

While significant, neither of those hits is huge when an ad is viewed in isolation. And on other perceptions of leaders’ qualities, such as competence and who cares most about the middle class, there was again no clear impact.

Considering how little these two ads have been airing so far, it’s possible the Tories aren’t using their best stuff against the NDP yet. But it’s worth remembering that, even with Mr. Trudeau, they spent a while running spots that didn’t really work before they hit their target. If they decide before this campaign is over to make Mr. Mulcair their main target, they’ll have a much smaller window to get it right.

(Full methodology for Innovative Research’s surveys are available from its website.)