As the leader of Prime Minister Harper’s debate team for the past three federal elections, I had to inform the party recently that I would be unable to do a fourth because of rule changes governing lobbyists involvement in election campaigns. But since my interest in debates hasn’t waned, I could not help but be interested in Britain’s first televised leaders’ debates.
Despite the usual media cynicism that greets these performances – because they really are “performances” the public actually loves to tune in, at least for a little while. Network ratings continually show high levels of viewership, at least when debates begin. For this reason, I thought the British networks were wise to limit the debates to 90 minutes. US and Canadian debates drone on for two hours.
I can tell you that all leaders – with the exception of third party leaders – hate these debates, because the risks outweigh the rewards. The third party leaders, of course, have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Each of the British party leaders is obviously well trained in television debates, structuring their points using what we at Hill & Knowlton call the CAP formula – demonstrating concern, action and perspective. The leaders did an adequate job of expressing concern over issues raised and a better job of explaining their policy, actions, and an excellent job of giving a perspective on why their own party policies were better than their opponents.
The British press have declared Liberal Party leader Nick Clegg the winner. Third parties usually are because the public and the media love an underdog. Neither Prime Minister Brown nor Conservative Leader David Cameron helped their cause by continuing to “agree with Nick” throughout the debate. They would have been better off to ignore him. They won’t make that mistake in the next two debates in Wales and Scotland where regional party leaders share the stage with the national parties, (that’s how we should handle Bloc Québecois participation in Canada, if you ask me.)
I do think that the success Mr. Harper enjoyed in his first Canadian debate with Mr. Martin was largely because he was able to exceed expectations. The incumbent is always supposed to know more and project more confidence than the opposition. When they fail to deliver – as Prime Minister Martin did against Mr. Harper—it has a demotivating effect on the campaign. That being said, and based on the data I have seen, so long as leaders don’t embarrass themselves, television debates usually have little impact on vote.
Watch for the next two debates to be more about risk avoidance for David Cameron and Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg has to be careful not to get too cocky with his newfound credibility. He would have been better off with only one debate. It will be hard for him to improve on his performance.
At the end of the day the main beneficiary of these debates will be David Cameron – if only because he will be better known and will be seen to be the prime minister’s equal. To this extent, the debates will solidify the Tory lead, and bleed Labour support to the Liberals.