How to watch an election debate
Coverage of election debates always focuses on a single, false question: Who won? Debates are never so cut-and-dried as to produce a clear winner—there are too many exchanges, some of them quite detailed and complex, and each leader always scores a few points for their team by the time the final bell sounds. What debates can do, however, is make an accusation stick: they offer the best chance to pierce a rival’s armour and inflict a political wound. By the end of Thursday night’s debate between the three main party leaders, the question that will matter most is: Do you believe, as John Tory and Howard Hampton keep saying, that Dalton McGuinty cannot be trusted? Because if voters still aren’t buying that line on Friday morning, they’ll likely never buy it.
Thus far, after two weeks’ worth of listening to Tory and Hampton hammer away at McGuinty for being an untrustworthy promise-breaker, their efforts have had virtually no impact upon public opinion. The Web site Democratic Space, which keeps a log of every poll and tracks a rolling tally of five-poll averages, shows that the Liberals have been rising in public opinion since the summer, with only a slight hiccup this week as they dropped by 0.4 percentage points. Yet both the PC and NDP campaigns are premised on this criticism: it is the best reason they can offer voters to switch their allegiance. They need that accusation to stick or their campaigns are going nowhere. And McGuinty’s armour is proving thicker than they hoped.
Tomorrow night, they get the chance to confront McGuinty directly with their accusations, and we get to see his reaction. Will he flinch, wince, lose his temper? Will he deflect the punch, or will he take it and give back as good as he gets? His response will be scripted, of course, but his facial expressions and mannerisms will offer their own insights. The delivery of the punch matters just as much: viewers will be responding to the same nonverbal cues from both Hampton and Tory as they go on the attack. Tory will also be defending himself on the religious-schools issue. He says he supports the idea because he believes it’s the right thing to do, but not everyone is convinced of that, and the measure of his conviction will lie in how he handles himself under fire. Forgive all the military metaphors, but there is truth to the old saying that politics is war by other means. Until now, this campaign has been in its phony-war stage. The real thing starts tomorrow night. If McGuinty has his way, it could end tomorrow night too.