03.25.2013 08:10 PM

In Tuesday’s Sun: debate this

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.


  1. Bob Janson says:

    not on topic but this is interesting: the Tea Party started out as a front group for Big Tobacco funded by the Koch bros:


    if ever you wanted an argument for government this is it…

    still non-partisan as ever, sorry …

  2. Swervin' Merv says:

    Suspicions are also confirmed in news interpretations, not just in debates. The best debate tonight was Carol Off (As It Happens, CBC Radio) nailing Kory Teneycke of Sun TV to the wall for not firing Ezra Levant for his racist rant last fall about Roma (Gypsies). While Teneycke tried to excuse Levant as not intending to be racist (“in his heart”), Ms. Offe rightly noted: “I would have been fired (by CBC), no matter my intentions, if I ever made the type of (racist) comments that Levant made on Sun TV.”

    • ray says:

      two things.
      By the time the interview/grilling/strafing of Teneycke by Carol Off ended he was whimpering as he prattled on and on with the same talking point through the silence she so deftly left him to fill. Devastating stuff.
      On leadership debates. I couldn ‘t help but think that when Canadians look at the candidates they call Trudeau “Justin” whereas the others are referred to as Marc Garneau or Joyce Murray or the full name of whoever. How the hell can you beat that? I don’t think you can.

  3. Philippe says:

    What about when Romney kicked Obama’s ass in their first debate – temporarily turning the tides of the election & making a race of it? I usually agree with you Warren, but not this time.

    • billg says:

      So, Romney won the debate but still got his ass kicked in the election…isnt that WK’s point? It was already a close race, the first debate made a few undecided’s peak their heads up, but, thats about it. In a world where most can get headline news on their cell phones 24 hours a day debates are now a thing of the past. We know who these people are before a staged debate even takes place. A one on one debate may change a few minds, but, the hodge podge 5 party debate we get in this country is almost circus like.

      • Philippe says:

        You’re wrong. Romney was way behind without a chance in hell before the debate. It changed the dynamics of the race until Romney’s famous “47%” gaffe.

        Debates can still be game changers.

        • Philippe says:

          Actually my bad the 47% comments came before the debates- however I stand by my comment that Romney’s 1st debate performance contributed to a large momentum swing.

          • JamesHalifax says:


            Romney’s observations on the 47% was bang on.

            He never had a chance.

            the debate was meaningless. Until that number goes down, the Republicans will have a very hard time of it in the future.

            Why do you think the use of Food stamps, welfare, disability payments have tripled under Obama? Simple, he’s setting up the conditions for Democratic rule for a long…long…time.

            Clearly, a great many Americans would rather keep receiving the “freebies” that people like Romney pay for, without realizing that the Romney’s of the world can simple pack up and leave. Then who’s going to pay for your big screen TV and hair extensions when the Food stamps run out?

        • JF says:

          Romney was way behind without a chance in hell before the debate… yes that’s true but ultimately he was way behind without a chance in hell on election day. So what did the debate accomplish? Nothing. It gave the media an opening to try and push a horserace narrative (because “close contest” makes for more engrossing programming then easy win for Obama) but in the end it did absolutely nothing.

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