Political leaders’ debates are almost always a letdown. I suspect the upcoming Election 2019 leaders’ debates next week will be no different.
Canadian voters will tune in to the debate expecting a slew of zingers and a hostile dress-down of party leaders who take the stage. But what they usually get is candidates talking over each other with stiff pre-determined talking points, on issues the moderator deems important.
And while the stakes are high in an election too close to call, debates generally do little to change that, even amongst undecided voters, who tune in to hear leaders’ visions and priorities to try and make their decision clearer.
There have been few noteworthy exceptions to the common wisdom that debates rarely change election outcomes.
The most notable exception was the 1984 federal election debate between John Turner and Brian Mulroney. The night of the English language leaders’ debate, Mr. Mulroney attacked Mr. Turner on the issue of Liberal patronage appointments. For a moment, the Liberals were set to continue to govern. But when Turner was challenged by Mr. Mulroney at the debate on the issue, Mr. Turner said this: “Well, I’ve told you and told the Canadian people, Mr. Mulroney, that I had no option.” It was that moment when it happened, Mr. Mulroney responded, “You had an option, sir. You could have said, ‘I am not going to do it.’” The exchange was historic. That line was a knock-out punch. It was the moment that changed the election. Mr. Mulroney went on to win. And win big.
While there have been other moments in Canadian debate history, none were as monumental as that exchange.
But even those who accept the notion that debates might not move the dial, live television holds boundless possibilities. Leaders of each party spend months intensely preparing for what could be their 1984 moment.
Few have experienced the world of political debate prep. There is no step-by-step guide to how it works, and no manual on best practices. And no candidate likes to prepare the same way. Most of the material is prepared well in advance and is tabbed neatly in a binder for easy access. Talking points, facts, and figures are all available at the leader’s fingertips.
But more interesting than compiling a binder of talking points is what happens in the room:
The group responsible for debate prep is small – by design. While many are fascinated by the process – few are invited. The reason is simple; debate prep is pointless when it becomes a forum overrun with too many opinions on what to say and how to say it.
The goal of debate prep is to recreate the circumstances of what it might feel like to be live on stage in the hands of moderators for two hours. Teams know exactly what the stage will look like, who stands at which podium, and the format (not the questions themselves). Those things are predetermined and shared with the debate prep team in advance by organizers. That is recreated in the room – usually away from the larger campaign team, in a nondescript hotel ballroom overrun with bright lights, podiums and endless pots of mediocre drip coffee.
The stage is set – the mics are on and a camera records rounds upon rounds of-well-rehearsed answers. “Actors” – usually trusted advisors on the leader’s team are tapped by the debate team, trusted to play the various opposing party leaders. It’s their job to study the tone, the demeanor and the policy positions of their respective roles. This makes it real and gives the leader being prepared a sense of what they might be up against. The debate team makes their best prediction about how opponents will behave, and more importantly what they might throw out there to attack the leader.
It’s easy to get caught up in policy positions, answers and the words that might strike the right chord. But debates, like media appearances, are more about tone, body language, and nonverbal communication. Where do you look? How do you refer to your opponent? Where do you put your hands? How often do you jump in and interrupt? How do you keep your energy levels high – but not too high? None of these are left to chance – they are all discussed, vigorously deliberated and finally decided on before game day.
Hours of preparation are guided by strategy, and of course, the goal is to win the debate – but the strategy is very different. The strategy is rooted in creating moments that will define the candidate’s strength and defend their known weaknesses. The strategy for each campaign is largely determined by the voters you need to convince, and those you need to keep on your side. It helps debate prep teams decide what issues about which you want to be most active, and which issues you may want to simply step back and let others own.
Here is what I mean: If your strength is the economy, you might seek to discredit your opponents’ tax plan or economic record. If your weakness is the environment, you do what we call the “get in and get out” — the less you are talking about your weakness the less fodder you provide for your opponents to discredit and attack you.
Leaders will insist on pages and pages of talking points of quippy one-liners to use against their opponents. As you can see from history – those pages have mostly gone unused. The activity is entertaining, nonetheless. Debate prep is often more difficult on the leader than the actual debate itself. If it’s easier – the debate team hasn’t done their job. The strategies are different for every campaign and are based on where the campaign is situated at that moment in time. Now you can watch leaders and understand that almost nothing on that stage was left to chance.
It’s the home stretch of Election 2019 and that means the federal leaders’ debates are quickly approaching. The Leaders’ Debates Commission, an independent body overseeing two debates, one in French and one in English, has invited all six party leaders to square-off in five different segments for two hours.
What remains to be seen is whether any leader can land the knockout punch — to change the course of this very close 2019 federal election.