08.11.2015 05:25 AM

KCCCC Day 10: if a debate fell in the forest, and no one was around to see it, would it matter?

[From this week’s Hill Times.]

The first debate has come and gone, and was seen by all the hacks in the land. Every politico was glued to their armchairs, watching Stephen, Thomas, Justin, and Elizabeth duke it out – and, occasionally, switching channels to take in some of the Republican presidential freak show.

But real folks? Joe and Jane Frontporch, as we call them?

They mostly didn’t watch.

As William L. Benoit wrote in his seminal book, Communication in Political Campaigns, “although millions continue to tune into debates, the number of voters – and the percentage of voters – who watch them has decreased over time.” And, as a CBC reporter asked prior to Thursday’s debate: “Will anyone watch an entire debate, or, will voters just see clips promoted in their Facebook feed?”

The answer, increasingly, is that many voters don’t watch leaders’ debates or presidential debates, at all. Mostly, this happens because debates provide fodder for the widely-held view that (a) politicians are badly behaved and (b) politicians would rather attack each other than come up with good ideas.

In 2000, I personally experienced this phenomenon close-up. I was on CTV with (the sadly, now-departed) Canadian Alliance spokesman, Rod Love, providing colour commentary. Rod was saying his guy was winning, and I was saying mine was, naturally.

The CTV host – disgraced broadcaster Mike Duffy, ironically enough – disagreed. He told us this: “Nobody is winning. My producers are telling me we are losing viewers in droves. They can’t stand all the shouting.”

Similarly, last Thursday night’s debate could have been noisier than Motorhead playing in a teacherless elementary school cafeteria at lunch time, and with about as much dignity, too. But it wasn’t too bad.

As in 2000, all the prime ministerial aspirants periodically shouted over each other – and they particularly sought to shout down Prime Minister Harper. It was not always pretty.

As such, Harper was the likely winner. He didn’t score any goals, per se, but he didn’t let the puck in the net very often, either. When three professional politicians are doing their utmost to take you into the boards, that’s about all you can hope for.

(Elizabeth May was well on her way to winning the debate – until the end, that is, when she shredded her own credibility on fighting terrorism.)

The objective, in any TV debate, is simple. It is twofold.

One, you need to look and sound prime ministerial – or, as the case may be, presidential. TV is a visual medium, and voters feel that debates give them an opportunity to evaluate a candidate by simply watching him or her. Thus, John F. Kennedy won in 1960, because he was calm, cool and handsome. His opponent, Richard M. Nixon, lost because he looked jowly and angry – and because he had a sweaty brow.

The second objective is equally simple: use the debate to ratify your campaign’s issues with those who are tuning in. As such, a leader should never be looking for the illusory “defining moment” – those are mainly a false media construct.

Instead, the objective should be ensuring that your issues (for Harper, security and economy; for Mulcair, serious progressive change; for Trudeau, change that isn’t radical) dominate the proceedings.

Figuring out who won any debate is pretty simple: first, watch it with the sound off, to see who looks like the right person for the job being sought. Then, review it with the sound on, to see whose issues occupied the most time during the entirety of the debate. There’s your winner, folks.

Now, in the mendacious modern era, lots of folks will claim to have watched the debate – when, in fact, they only saw a clip or two on Twitter or the aforementioned Facebook. To these voters, that is about as much time as they are prepared to commit.

The Conservative Party, with well-funded communications techniques that always aim for the lowest common denominator, is the party that tends to be better at this stuff. They know that fewer and fewer folks are tuning in, and the main task is therefore simply getting citizens to think about what you are saying for a minute.

By those standards – and when you consider how Joe and Jane Frontporch are increasingly tuning out – Stephen Harper likely won the debate.

The others, meanwhile, looked like they were auditioning for the jobs they already had: opposition leaders.


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    Peter says:

    I was just wondering. Are Joe and Jane Frontporch related to Mr. and Mississauga?

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      davie says:

      …2nd cousins to Jane and Joe Backpatio in Western Canada…

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    Joe says:

    This Joe and Jane couple didn’t watch the debates and we are more politically aware than our friends. I believe the last debate I watches was the first time May was allowed in and she was so annoying that I tuned out shortly after the debate began. Besides which how on earth do they get away calling these screech fests debates? A real debate is about lining up all the pros and all the cons and making a decision. These are simply an opportunity to present your talking points over and over and over.

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    Isaac Hwang says:

    I’m issachwang@yahoo.com. Send me spam.

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      P. Brenn says:

      Isaac – you want spam then watch debates and get on parties fundraising and email lists…

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    hollinm says:

    The debate was fine except for the yappy kid on the far left of the TV screen. I guess he thought he had to act like an a$$hole so he didn’t get lost in the dust. I couldn’t help but think of my adult son while I was watching Trudeau. That is who he reminded me of. I love my son but I wouldn’t want him running the country. However, there was the man child yelling across the room in order to get attention. Of course Harper ignored him and that is what Canadians are going to do on election day.

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      Taco says:

      I completely agree. Except I was thinking of my father and his foreign accent. I just cringed, I felt like I was embarrassed, even though I have no relation to Trudeau.

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    Steve says:

    Hi Warren, in the past few days I’ve noticed that both you and Bob Rae have turned out what looks like some good analysis painting a fairly bleak picture, ie pointing towards another Harper win.
    Nice work, but when the boat is on the reef I would prefer that all hands be on deck to get it off the reef, as opposed to providing analysis telling me it’s on the reef.
    Am just saying.



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      Warren says:

      I don’t work for the Libs. Thanks for the civics lesson.

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    Rod Croskery says:

    Trudeau won. The defining moment in the debate came when Mulcair backed him into the corner with a prepared move. “What’s your number? He won’t say. What’s your number?” Mulcair seemed to believe he had his principal opponent set for the knockout punch.

    Trudeau eyes flashed as though he had just thought of something: “You want a number? I’ll give you a number. The number is NINE! That’s the number of Supreme Court Justices….” JT came out of the corner swinging and he proved his ability to go toe-to-toe with the others and hold his own.

    That was pretty much it for Mulcair’s attempt to eliminate Trudeau from the race.

    Trudeau also planted the meme which may well determine the outcome of this election when he shouted: “Mr. Harper, nobody believes you any more.”

    So in sum, the man who had the most to lose in this debate, emerged the winner.

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      Maps Onburt says:

      I agree those were his high points… he’s a good actor and obviously his drama teacher training paid off. Unfortunately, his low points were where he called himself and the Liberal Party naive and then his horrible rambling close. I can just imagine him in a meeting with Putin or Obama and flubbing his lines. JustNotReady.

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      UFP Ambassador says:

      So you watched a clip on Facebook, eh?

      You missed the part where the whole country shouted at Trudeau: “Nobody has ever believed you, sonny boy”.

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      Vancouverois says:

      “…as though he had just thought of something”? Really?

      I can guarantee you that the comeback “my number is nine” was prepared well in advance.

      I do think it was a good one, though, and I hope Mr Trudeau continues to hammer away at French citizen Mulcair on this issue.

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      Tom Rudd says:

      Exactly the way I saw it also!

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      MississaugaPeter says:

      Yes, Trudeau won because he didn’t lose.

      Unfortunately for everyone but Mulcair, people didn’t watch the debates and the NDP went up in the first poll after the debates.


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      Peter says:

      “Came out swinging”, “eyes flashed”, “knockout punch”, “toe to toe”. Wow, that reads like post-game colour commentary after a WWF match.

      But do you think JT can “go the distance”?

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      Shamrock says:

      I agree, the “9” moment was Trudeau’s best, and I thought it was a great answer to Mr Mulcair’s badgering, but he failed to seize on that momentum creating quip. His final comments were not very good to say the least. Despite being the junior in age, he was the most argumentative, often and petulantly interrupting Mr Harper when he didn’t agree with a point, refusing to yield to the moderator (one the few times he intervened), with Mr Harper simply speaking above him to finish his point.

      Not as bad as Ms May in her last debate (BTW she was MUCH better behaved this time), but enough to lose him the debate. Mr Mulcair held his own, but not much more. His problem is not debating, but gaffes from his underlings, which also plagued Mr Harper in his early campaigns.

      On line polling, for what it’s worth, is giving Mr Harper the win, so you have some validation to you point of view Mr Kinsella.

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      Melrose Munch says:

      Trudeau probably won, but he needs to do more.

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      MC says:

      Trudeau delivered nothing more than a pre-scripted, canned performance. It is the most serious failing of Canadians that we tolerate mediocrity and desire superficiality. Trudeau delivers both in substantial quantities. Don’t be fooled.

      And, to a point made elsewhere on this page, there wasn’t really a debate. There was a “let’s get together and repeat our talking points at each other” media event. When there is a *real* debate — one that engages thought, ideas and (dare I say it) dialogue — Joe and Jane’ll watch, if only for the fascination of seeing something that most people barely see happen in politics — committed public servants working together for a better country. Now that would be a change worth voting for. But it’s not happening in this election, and it won’t happen after it either, except amongst those few good people who manage to be elected despite the debacle-making forces that are their party leaders.

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    Verna says:

    lets face it. The only grown up in the room with brains was Prime Minister Harper.

    The so called Canadian “debate” should be run like the Republican debate in the US or PM Harper against each opposition, one on one and NO INTERRUPTING.

    This opposition pile on isn’t a debate. If the shoe was reversed, the other 3 would be demolished. It would be the deer in the headlights on that bunch.

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    Maps Onburt says:

    > The others, meanwhile, looked like they were auditioning for the jobs they already had: opposition leaders.

    Bang on! Best summary of 750 words I’ve seen in a while! Warren is on a roll lately! Must be the upcoming nupitals!

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    patrick says:

    If it’s all on visuals then how does someone who’s face looks wrong – his smile is fake, his eyes are too far apart and cold as ice and has a helmut for hair win an election. As shallow as it is the man has given me the creeps from the first time I saw him and I felt the same about Rob Ford, beady stupid eyes, but both keep getting elected. I suspect the aging “me, myself its mine” generation is aging into the fearful, righteous incontinent cranks I expected and are voting for the most selfish and venal in a vain attempt to take it all with them.
    It’s a theory.

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      Yukon Cornelius says:

      Wow. I’m no great fan of Harper but from what I can see, the alternatives are worse. And this somehow makes me a fearful, righteous incontinent crank?

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        The Doctor says:

        That’s the way the world works, in the eyes of uber-partisan buttheads: everyone who votes for a party you don’t like is a horrible, contemptible person voting out of sheer spite and ignorance. Isn’t partisan politics fun?

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    BillBC says:

    Here’s my take. Seems to me people here think the winner was whoever they favoured in the first place. Trudeau fans think he won, Harper fans the same, etc. etc. The only one who takes a dispassionate view is Warren K. himself, which is why I read this blog regularly. I’m just astonished that someone who has been a Liberal fan his whole life as far as I know (I wanted to say “apparatchik till recently” but I don’t want to be banned) can take such a measured view of things. Great to read. Keep it up Warren; I’m a fan…

    I didn’t watch the debate at all. I decided who to vote for a long time ago, and it’s unlikely that watching them all bloviate and attack each other would change my mind. I vote according to their parties’ policies and past behaviour, not on their performance on TV…

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    mark b says:

    Stephen Harper won the debate? Ha! What a laugh that is. He stood there and lied, and tried to defend his abject failure as Prime Minister, his failure on the economy, his failure on environment and his failure on democracy just to name a couple. If anyone would still support this vindictive pycho then they get what they rightly deserve. So if lets say Tom or Justin or even Liz had the exact same failure rate as Harper with all the scandals, secrecy, lies and failure on pretty much every anti democratic policy they’ve put forward (see the SCOC) would you vote for them? I know I wouldn’t. If Harper WAS doing a good job I’d be the first to stand up for him, but he’s nothing but a failure on every level and if you can’t see that then you’re blind, dumb, stupid or all three.

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      BillBC says:

      I think you have proved my point….

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    Verna says:

    Mark B
    I think you need to elaborate on Conservative supporters who are Blind, Stupid and dumb .Looks to me that PM Harper only told the truth(the RCMP agree)…the opposition were the liers and the debate didn’t allow PM Harper to call them one on one on their platitude, bologna, bogus BS. Failure on the economy? You wish…the best in the G7. The Liberals had green house gases go up over 30% with Kyota which they signed up to and ignored . Under Harper the green house gases have gone DOWN.Democracy…what a hoot…check out the Mulcair separtists and Trudeau and his rules for his caucus on voting only for abortion or else your out of the party.He stands with the mosques and juhadis . Scandles? How about the 2.7 MILLION stolen from taxpayers from the NDP but the court case is delayed till 2016 AFTER the election in the courts…like Liberal Marc Harb…delayed till 2016. Lets face it Mark , your not a Conservative. All you Liberals/NDP have is hoping Nigel Wright will say PM Harper KNEW Nigel was going to pay off the taxpayers.I think you are the one who is blind . dumb and stupid. Check out your facts . Your lacking.

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      markb says:

      Verna…it is not me who is blind and stupid take a look in the mirror…almost 10 years of nothing but corruption and scandal almost on a daily basis. Your racist mentality against people of the middle east is truly astonishing…not everyone is a terrorist…you can’t even spell jihadi let alone say it in the proper context. Nigel will lie that’s a given there isn’t one iota of truth in any of them…you support corruption….good for you. Maybe there’s a senate seat for you. You wouldn’t know a fact if it fell on you…obviously you haven’t been paying attention whatsoever.

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