Opinion-Policy Nexus

Let’s turn our attention to the Quebec election. My comment is about Sunday's debate and its possible effects on the electorate. Here is the summary: The effect is probably marginal, and it is at the margins where one is likely to see most effects. The big “winner,” should there be a need to declare one, is the one leader least likely to emerge as the premier of that province in the Sept. 4 election.

It is important to point out the debate involved four leaders, two from the main parties (Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois), one from the brand-new Coalition Avenir Québec, and the fourth from fringe party Québec Solidaire (QS), which has one member elected to the Quebec National Assembly. According to a poll by Forum, the “winner” of Sunday’s debate was the previously little known Françoise David, leader of QS. Why? Precisely because she was the least known of the four.

I coauthored with Andre Blais an article which goes into further details about the general effects of debates.  In sum, televised debates offer an equal opportunity for party leaders. Consequently, the least known has the most to gain. But they don’t usually make a major difference; they don’t change too many minds.

Debates have other equalizing effects, too. Those low in the polls tend to see a bump, those in front tend to lose. The Quebec Liberal party, for instance, was slipping in the polls, but have since the debates regained some ground, according to Forum. Again, this may have little to do with Jean Charest’s actual “performance” and more to do with raising awareness about all four parties and their leaders, and what they ultimately stand for. Perhaps debates rebalance views that may be exaggerated for whatever reason (negative ads? media coverage?). That’s pretty much the extent of debate effects. No game changer, really. It is just another component of an otherwise more elaborate array of campaign activities and dynamics, which on the whole may matter more than any one single moment, such as a debate, despite being in the spotlight, literally.

Sure, performance is important in some cases, assuming there is a so-called “knock-out” punch. These are rare, and even when they occur, they are not always important game changers. Recall way back when federal Liberal leader John Turner hammered Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for “selling out” Canada in the free trade negotiations with the United States. Mulroney was re-elected in that 1988 election with a majority. Most recently, the late Jack Layton’s fiery attack during the televised debates (recall “hashtag fail!”) may appear to have helped the NDP emerge to its best standing ever, but it’s also plausible that Layton’s performance in the nationally televised debates was less important than his appearance on Quebec’s popular Radio Canada television program “Tout le monde en parle,” or other factors peculiar to Quebec (electoral fatigue with the Bloc Québécois? disenchantment with the rightwing ideological pull of the governing Conservatives?). The debate may have mattered little.


Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 14:23