Musings —03.25.2013 08:10 PM
—In case you missed them (and the chances are excellent that you did) we can advise that the Liberal party’s leadership debates are now over. Similarly, we can advise that, to all but a small number of partisans, they didn’t matter.
Political debates seldom do.
The media love them, naturally, because they get to assign “winner” and “loser” to the various participants. The participants, meanwhile, loathe debates because there is very little return on their investment of time and resources.
If debates really mattered, for example, Stephen Harper would not now be prime minister. In the debates for the 2011 election that saw Harper rewarded with a majority government, Harper was a somnambulist. He sleepwalked his way through the debates and left behind no “defining moment” for historians to ponder. But no one cared.
That is not to say the Liberal party’s leadership debates were a total waste of time. For committed Liberal partisans — the ones most likely to sign up to vote for the next Grit leader next month — the debates were probably a lot of fun. They were also an opportunity to see the candidates close up and perhaps evaluate how they would perform on the hustings.
But that is not the same thing as saying political debates affect the outcome. Mostly, they don’t. In the Liberal race, Justin Trudeau was favoured to win from the moment he announced his candidacy last October in Montreal. Months later, he’s still favoured to win.
U.S. studies of the effect of the political debates are noteworthy. In one, political scientist James Stimson looked at four decades of U.S. presidential debates, between 1960 and 2000. His conclusion: “There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” A “nudge” maybe, but that is all.
A bigger study, by political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, looked at every available poll from presidential elections between 1952 and 2008. The pair found that “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.” That is, the state of the race before the debates will usually be the state of the race after the debates.
And so, too, the Liberal debates. There were five in all, held from coast to coast. Last weekend’s, held in Montreal and covered gavel-to-gavel by Sun News Network, was attended by hundreds. Were any of their minds changed by what they observed?
Perhaps, in a few cases, but not many. Voluminous studies show us voters tune in to political debates — and political advertising — to have their biases and suspicions confirmed. Not to have their minds changed.
Departed political genius Tony Schwartz, who I interviewed for my book Fight The Right, likened all of this to a psychologist’s Rorschach patterns. He said, “(They) do not tell the viewer anything. They surface his feelings, and provide a context for him to express his feelings.”
What, then, do Liberals feel about Trudeau, their leader-to-be? That he is what they feel they need. That he could win.
What Canadians will ultimately think, however, remains elusive. As always, their decision about Trudeau’s fitness will come down to a synthesis of quick clips, gut reactions and shared impressions.
But not debates.