I’ll be writing my column for our next issue right after tonight’s English-language leaders’ debate, so until then I won’t be writing much. A few thoughts before the big event:
• Debates matter. In 1984 (Turner), 1988 (Mulroney), 2006 (Martin) and 2008 (Harper), the incumbent prime minister ran into substantial difficulty after the leaders’ debates aired. (Here’s Coyne’s blog post, written when Harper’s support started to sag after the Oct. 1 and 2 debates in 2008.) Trouble doesn’t mean defeat: Mulroney in 1988 and Harper in 2008 were able to push back against challengers and win. And debates don’t always produce clear-cut shifts in public opinion. But they can.
• Time’s growing short for the opposition parties. Polls so far have been more characterized by stability than by any sensitivity to the news of the day. Most projections I’ve seen put the Conservatives under a majority, but not by much. If the opposition parties want to close their gap with the Conservatives, they need it to start happening soon.
• There are no knockout punches. By this, I don’t just mean that the leaders are so exquisitely coached that they don’t come up with any snappy lines, but that nobody cares whether they do. Voters watch the whole debate, or long extracts, looking not for a smart lip but for somebody who feels like a reliable leader. (For this reason, the notion that for Ignatieff the whole debate comes down to his six minutes facing Harper one-on-one is bollocks.) Command of detail, confident tone, a willingness to push back when pushed by an opponent — these will all get a leader further than a punchy clip would. And a leader who stands around nervously, hopping from one foot to another, looking for a chance to deliver his staff’s pre-cooked “knockout blow” — well, that leader is doomed.
• This should be an easier debate for Harper than 2008. In that election he faced four other leaders. One of them was Elizabeth May. Harper’s default reaction to a challenge is to snarl and bite. He didn’t dare do that while a woman was on the stage with him. Determined to react to her every gambit with what his handlers called “the icy blue eyes of love,” he looked like he’d been hit in the thigh with a tranquilizer dart. Expect him to lean into his adversaries with less restraint tonight.