Going into last night’s Leaders’ debate Michael Ignatieff had everything to gain and very little to lose.  His personal levels of support were in the low teens.  Expectations were low and for an accomplished debater it should have been all upside for him. Unfortunately for Mr. Ignatieff, comparative overnight polling done by Ipsos shows that while Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton either met or exceeded expectations, Ignatieff failed to impress.
Going into the debate, 34 per cent of Canadians thought Stephen Harper should win the debate.  After last night’s performance, 42 per cent of Canadians picked Mr. Harper as the clear winner.  Unfortunately for Mr. Ignatieff, the man who stole the show during the Liberal leadership debates with a line he used on Stéphane Dion, “didn’t get the job done”.
At the end of the day the opinions of the so-called experts, of which I am told I am sometimes one, really don’t matter.  But, let me give you my mine anyway.
All of the leaders did a pretty good job of communicating their key messages.  The debate format clearly helped Harper because he was able to differentiate his policies from those of the other leaders.  Whether it was on the need to focus on the economy, keep taxes low, repealing the long gun registry, getting tough on crime, his policies appeal to a segment of the population for whom the Conservatives are the only option.  The other leaders must share support from voters who take a different position.  Policy matters far more in these debates than people realize.  In all of the ‘time frame analysis’ of voter reactions to debates, listeners’ reactions always become positive when leaders use their party platforms as proof points.  I thought that Harper’s overarching narrative came through the clearest when he said that he needed a majority to end the ‘bickering’ and to establish a ‘stable’ government to focus on the economy in turbulent economic times.
But it was with non verbal communication where the prime minister really stole the show.  Experts noted that he barely broke a sweat.  He was cool, calm and collected as he always is in these debates.  I actually think this may have been his best performance yet. But, he also had very good use of non-verbal communication techniques, particularly with his hands.  While the other leaders aggressively pointed their fingers and flailed away in many different directions, Harper reassured the audience by repeatedly using hand gestures over the most “vulnerable” part of a person’s body: his belly.  This technique is called the ‘TruthPlane’.  Churchill used it with great effect. Every time he was under attack he would stick his belly out further as if to show how confident he was of his position.  Harper may be no Churchill, but he astutely reassured voters of the sincerity of his position and the openness of his intentions by effectively using his hands to convey confidence.)  Ironically, while many experts criticize Harper for being cold and secretive, his use of his hands reassured voters.
At the end of the day, these debates are exciting for people like me but have generally not influenced the outcome of elections.  While this debate format is a marked improvement over the debates of the past decade, it was still sufficiently chaotic that many voters will come away confused about their options.  Until we can get back to three leaders with 30 minute one on one segments, the Leaders’ debates will play a modest role in election outcomes.  Interestingly, Ipsos showed that Gilles Duceppe had a rough showing this time around with nearly 45 per cent of viewers saying that their impressions of him have worsened.
This year the consortia had the courage to keep Elizabeth May out.  Maybe next time it will tackle the problem of a regional leader in a national debate.