In Friday’s Sun: how to win a political debate

I’ve had the privilege to help get Prime Ministers and Premiers ready for political debates. I always tell them debates are really just about two things.

One, looking and sounding like a leader. Two, using the debate to ratify your issues and policies.

That’s it.

Ontario’s leaders debate contained a few surprises, but no so-called ‘defining moments.’ Watching it, ten lessons can be drawn, for future political leaders to clip and save.

1. Undersell and overperform. Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s spinners did nothing to contradict the pre-debate impression that he was going to have a lousy night. Hudak’s strategy paid dividends: to everyone’s surprise, he looked and sounded like the winner.

2. TV is pictures. It’s 70 per cent how you look, 20 per cent how you say it, and ten per cent what you actually say. It almost didn’t matter that his economic plan has been shredded by the experts – because Hudak looked confident and in control. NDP leader Andrea Horwath sometimes appeared uncertain, and kept checking her cue cards. And Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne waved her arms around like a drowning person. Hudak won the pictures war.

3. Facts tell, stories sell. Lawyers, doctors, engineers and bureaucrats are lousy communicators – because, when stressed-out, they rely on jargon and acronyms and statistics. They don’t tell stories; they regurgitate factoids. Wynne is like that: too often, she seems more like a Deputy Minister than a Premier. Hudak and Horwath, meanwhile, remembered they were guests in our living rooms, and spoke accordingly. It worked.

4. Debates are like rock’n’roll: Chuck Berry once said that it should take a long time to craft a great song – but only two minutes to sing it. So too political debates. You need to research your issue, and know it backwards and forwards. But you also need to be able to express it in a very brief elevator conversation. Hudak and Horwath did that.

5. KISS! Keep It Simple, Stupid, Bill Clinton advisor James Carville once wrote on the Democratic Party’s war room wall. The key, in debates, is to recall that voters have very busy lives, and no time to wade through political verbiage. Hudak was mocked by his adversaries for sounding like a salesman – but only because they know, in their hearts, that Hudak kept it simple, and made the sale.

6. It’s about “we,” not “me.” Voters know that politicians occupy a world filled with power and fame. They know that political life is not everyday life. But, just the same, voters want to feel that political leaders understand the challenges of their daily lives. They want to hear leaders talk about them (the “we”), and not just themselves (the “me”). Hudak won the debate because he constantly used the right pronoun.

7. Have two or three priorities, not 100. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin – who has been stumping for Wynne, and whose inexpert inner circle runs her campaign – once said that, if you have 100 priorities, you don’t have one. And he was right (but he didn’t ever follow his own advice). In the debate, Wynne and Horwath often recited laundry lists of policies, leaving Hudak to talk about his one main priority, jobs.

8. TV is about emotion, not information. Hudak knew that, and acted on it. He didn’t lecture or hector: he was easy-going and told stories. On TV, that’s the only approach that wins hearts and minds.

9. Don’t be melodramatic. TV is a cool medium, McLuhan said, and you can’t get too hot. Hudak’s one mistake was to occasionally get too-theatrical – Hope is on the way! I’ll resign if I don’t do what I say! – and he accordingly sounded silly. (Justin Trudeau could benefit for remembering this one, as well.)

10. Smile. Smile! Politics is a crazy business – and sometimes you just need to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Hudak looked like he was enjoying himself. The other two didn’t.

Hudak won the debate – but that doesn’t mean he’s won the election. He may have observed all the above rules, sure.

But we still don’t know if anyone actually bothered to tune in!

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John Tory: do as I say, not as I do

Having just completed “a whiplash-inducing flip-flop on his transit “Number One Priority,” John Tory has something new to be a hypocrite about: ethics.

Discussing Rob Ford’s regular violation of conflict of interest rules, here’s what John said last night at the mayoralty candidate’s debate at Humber College in Etobicoke:

“[The] mixing up of private and public business — you can’t do it,” said John.

Gotcha.

Would this be John Tory who still sits on the Rogers board, earning $10,000 a meeting?

The same John Tory who just this year has been a registered lobbyist for Rogers?

The same John Tory who remains a Rogers boss, despite the fact that Rogers does tons of business with the City of Toronto?

The same John Tory whose Rogers employs up to a dozen lobbyists to pressure City officials?

Yep. Same John Tory.

This sums him up, I’d say:


In Tuesday’s Sun: what is the effect of an attack ad on the attacked?

Whenever political parties unleash new ads – as is happening this week in Ontario – reporters inevitably call up the so-called experts.

They call political scientists, image consultants and pollsters. They call political strategists.

But they never call up the people the ads are actually about: the political leaders themselves. If they did – and if the leaders said what they really think – it might be pretty revealing.

In 1993, when John Tory, Allan Gregg and others cooked up an ad that mocked Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis, those of us in the Liberal Party war room were livid. But Chretien’s own reaction was revealing.

He didn’t seem surprised or as angry as the rest of us. He was calm. In retrospect, it almost seemed like he was expecting the Conservatives to stoop that low – so he rose to the occasion.

“God gave me a physical defect, I’ve accepted that since I was a kid,” he told a teary campaign gathering, on his way to a massive Parliamentary majority. “When I was a kid, people were laughing at me. But I accepted that because God gave me other qualities and I’m grateful.”

That was the Fall of 1993. More recently, in 2009, another Liberal leader was the target of another barrage of Conservative attack ads. Over and over, Canadians were told Michael Ignatieff was “just visiting.”

At first, Ignatieff dismissed the ads. He laughed at them, but it sounded hollow. It was apparent that the ads bothered him a great deal – and that he was privately worried that they would hurt him in the coming election.

They did, of course. Ignatieff lost his own seat, and the once-great Liberal Party was reduced to its worst showing in history.

Which brings us to the present. For the past year or so, the Conservatives have been targeting another Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau. Almost from the moment Trudeau received the tarnished Grit crown, Tories have been running nasty ads about him.

There is a theme that runs through the ads. They show him doing a strip-tease at a charity event. They show him sporting a Pirates of the Caribbean-style goatee, and with long locks. They show him speaking with the faintest hint of a lisp.

Without saying so, it is clear what the Harper Conservatives are doing. They are not simply attempting to depict Trudeau as not being “up to the job” of Prime Minister. As a former Ignatieff advisor remarked: “They’re trying to suggest he’s effeminate.”

Harper and his party would strenuously deny this, naturally, just as they denied they were mocking Jean Chretien’s face. But it is hard to shake the suspicion that the Cons feel Trudeau isn’t manly enough.

Trudeau, perhaps, knows this too.

It arguably explains some of his own behaviour: the boxing matches, the flashing of biceps, the singular brutality with which he has dealt with some within his own party – the Senators, dissidents, pro-lifers.

Trudeau doesn’t speak to anyone at Sun News, so we don’t know whether his insistence on displays of derring-do are authentic, or if he is trying to make a point. But it’s not unfair to wonder if the Conservative ads don’t keep him awake, some nights.

If a reporter ever gets around to asking a leader what he or she thinks about an attack ad, the response is predictable: that it’s offensive, it’s silly, it’s outrageous.

But in their unguarded, private moments, is that what they really think? Probably not.

In the meantime, however, we’ll continue to hear plenty of blather from the political scientists and the image consultants.

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Bricker does my thinking for me

I know, I know, pollsters get things wrong, these days.  Believe me, I know.

But Ipsos, Abacus and the precious few others who actually, you know, talk to real people still do fine work (and it’s why my firm uses them, by the way).

Darrell’s tweets below neatly summarize what I said to Lala over the weekend: (a) too many Liberal voters think they’re going to win, (b) so they haven’t paid enough attention to the intensity of Hudak’s vote; (c) the Wynne campaign has been all over the map – attacking the NDP, then talking up NDP-Liberal coalition; (d) attacking Hudak for his plan – but two weeks after the fact; and (e) believing everyone in the province remembers a budget that no one remembers, and calling that their plan.

Again: I would be surprised if half the province is actually aware there is a campaign going on.  And those circumstances always favour Conservatives. Ask Stephen Harper: he’s been winning for a decade with a smaller, but more-engaged voter base.  Apathy is his (and Hudak’s) friend.

 

 


Olivia vs. John

Olivia Chow attended literally dozens of community get-togethers and fun fairs and whatnot over the weekend. She was non-stop.

John Tory’s campaign? Well, um, their chief spokesperson was on Twitter, (a) attacking Liberals and (b) defending Tim Hudak’s dalliances with the Tea Party.