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What you need to know: The leaders’ debates

In this latest edition of MV Spotlight, managing directors Tim Murphy and Richard Mahoney draw on their long experience prepping Liberal leaders to highlight what all of the 2021 party leaders and senior staff are going through before the upcoming French and English language debates.

Q: How do leaders prepare for the debates? Does every leader/team approach it the same way?

A kind of playbook has developed over time, so most campaigns prepare their leaders in a similar way – varying a bit by circumstance and experience.

Debate prep books are de rigueur. These are briefing books on issues, on likely attacks, on key differentiators, and on “judo” points – i.e. how to use attacks on you and turn them against your opponents.

In some cases, these sessions reveal particular weaknesses or strengths. For example, before the 2014 Ontario campaign, it became evident that Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne’s answers on the gas plants scandal needed to be grounded in an apology in order for her to credibly argue that she could fix the problem. As a result, she did apologize before the campaign started, allowing her to talk more about what she wanted to do than the errors made by her predecessor.

Finally, there are usually a handful of practice or mock debates, with stand-ins for your opponents. We have both played those roles for our leaders on several occasions.  These can be intense but the purpose of these sessions is to try to replicate all the scenarios a leader may face in the real debate so that it seems like familiar territory to them.

Q: What kind research goes into preparing for the debates?

First and foremost, the strategy of the debate – who is the target, who do you engage and who do you ignore; what issues do you lead with and what do you minimize; what policies are key to explain — are driven by the overall campaign strategy.

Then, each opposing campaign is reviewed for policy weaknesses and the leader’s prior statements for material to mine during the debate.

Performance tapes of  your own leader are reviewed to work on; such as speaking to camera; when to engage with the others and what body language should be used and when.

The campaign communications staff come up with pithy sound bites and good attack, defence and judo lines – all meant to provide the clip for the news to be repeated in the days ahead. Think of Brian Mulroney’s 1984 “you had an option, sir” line to John Turner regarding the latter’s patronage appointments upon becoming prime minister.

Q: Take us into the practice sessions. How are they structured, how many times would you do a mock debate, and why are they important?

Mock debates are important to provide somewhat realistic practice for the leader; for example, they are called debates but debate isn’t always what is called for.

Many political staff and journalists look for “knock-out punches” and “pointed exchanges” but most voters who haven’t yet decided are actually looking for someone they can trust, someone who is well motivated to do the right thing and someone who broadly shares their values. Arguing, interruptions and angry exchanges are the antithesis of what they are looking for.

Generally, mock debates are held well in advance of the actual debate, with stand-ins for the other leaders. They test performance, argumentation, practice presentation and enhance the leader’s comfort level and confidence. As the actual debate approaches, mock debates tend to fall away as they can be an emotional roller coaster for leaders.

We have both been part of mock debates for leaders that have revealed areas where they are not quite ready, and this can harm a sometimes-fragile confidence.  It is  better to have a confident candidate than one who has practiced every thrust and sally. 

Ultimately, you are looking to be authentic and human. Gilles Duceppe, the former leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, often was seen as the best debater in the English language debates. Why? Because he was natural, made his case but, perhaps because those votes did not really matter to him, he always looked relaxed and comfortable.

This lesson was learned the hard way in the 1995 Ontario provincial leaders’ debate. In the mock session, the mock Bob Rae and the mock Mike Harris were briefed to be aggressive and Lyn McLeod, the novice Liberal leader, was left with little airtime. In the actual televised debate, neither Harris nor Rae were that aggressive. McLeod was much more so – inviting initial plaudits from many observers, including veteran media covering the campaign, who all thought she had “won” the debate. . However, the campaign started turning in the Conservatives’ favour in the wake of  the debate because, rather than focusing on winning debate points with McLeod and Rae, Harris used the opportunity to speak directly to the camera, direct to voters, in measured tones about his “Common Sense” plan, winning over doubters. He never looked back.

Q: What are the different goals each leader might have for a debate?

It depends on the challenge in front of that leader at the time. For a new leader, such as Erin O’Toole, it can be a chance to introduce themselves to the voters and show that they are competent, authentic and well motivated.  For a veteran incumbent such as Justin Trudeau, it might be more focused on getting voters to pay attention to the real choice in the campaign between their offering and the others – helping drive policy in some cases. At times, it may even be about preservation.

In the 2006 federal campaign, the Liberal internal numbers showed that support had cratered and that the Harper Conservatives were cruising to victory if voters weren’t exposed to the risks of that choice. As a result, a more aggressive debate approach was called for. At the time, media and pundits, unaware of what the polling was showing, were critical of the choice. However, in the next few weeks, Liberal support recovered so that, in the end, the Conservatives were held to a minority.

Campaigns rarely have a “knockout punch” as a realistic goal and that is because success doesn’t require one. Arguably, Jack Layton’s Quebec debate performance in 2011, which contained neither a knockout nor a particular defining moment, allowed him to be presented to voters in Quebec as one of them and a safe choice for those tired of voting Liberal or for the Bloc. His Quebec success then spilled over into English Canada.

Q: How do you cut through the noise on such a crowded stage?

Format matters. That is why campaigns spend some considerable time negotiating with the media and each other in advance of the debate on format. Most leaders want a mixture of time to speak directly to the audience on the issues and then some time to engage with the others. Here, a free for all format may benefit some who can speak at length. Interruptions may be common, but voters do not like interruptions, so a reasonable debate where people can be heard is the best outcome for voters. Campaigns don’t always agree.

Q: Speaking of noise, now that there is so much reaction and interaction on social media during the debate, is it still possible for parties to “spin” the performance of the leaders?

No. Hasn’t been true for ages. Parties stopped sending out “spinners” by 2006. Some key commentators don’t come to the debate venue any more – preferring to watch it at home so they can see only what the voters see.  That “spin” does take place on social media, but that is mostly a case of the choir preaching to the choir.  Campaigns do monitor the debates with polling and real-time voter reaction to determine what worked and what needs fixing. The results will then show up in advertising, leader performance, and tour focus.



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