A revisionist look at debates

In the daily practice of political journalism, few tasks offer more opportunities for getting it wrong than the adjudication of an election debate.

In the daily practice of political journalism, few tasks offer more opportunities for getting it wrong than the adjudication of an election debate.

Barely have the leaders delivered their opening statements that one has to start getting one’s head around whether any of them is winning or losing points with voters.

Minutes after the gavel has come down, television analysts swing into action.

Columnists who now toil in a 24/7 competitive wired environment are equally under the gun to come up with a definitive assessment.

Those pressures may explain why few political events are as prone to historical revisionism as leaders debates.

Three years after the fact, for instance, NDP leader Jack Layton is considered to have done exceptionally well in the 2011 federal debates. The exchange when he took Michael Ignatieff to task over the latter’s attendance record in the House of Commons was a pivotal moment in the campaign.

But that really only became apparent in the rear-view mirror.

On the night of the English-language debate, the exchange did not earn Layton much play in the media’s commentary. The NDP leader’s performance came up almost as an afterthought in the debriefing of the CBC’s At Issue panel (of which I am a member).

Similarly, an extensive CTV news recap posted online an hour after the debate quotes Layton for the first time in the 16th paragraph (a few graphs down from the first mention of Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe).

The NDP leader’s comments on crime prevention made the cut of that play-by-play report but not the Layton-Ignatieff exchange that turned out to have legs in public opinion.

As often as not, media watchers build their debate narrative on faulty assumptions.

For more than half of the 2011 federal campaign for example, every twist and turn was meant to fit neatly in the frame of a Liberal/Conservative battle for power. The Layton moment did not fit that preordained mould and so the media mostly missed its significance.

After the last of two debates in the recent Quebec campaign there was a wide media consensus that then-Liberal leader Philippe Couillard — who spent the evening against the ropes taking hits from his rivals — had had the toughest night of the four provincial leaders.

But over the week that followed, it was Pauline Marois who lost ground.

The media had watched the debate to see if Couillard was stoppable. But the viewers for whom it was a vote-changer were potential Marois supporters driven by a poorly executed campaign to shop for an alternative.

In the 2004 federal campaign, I waited my turn to give my take on the English-language debate on the CBC standing next to a CTV pundit who was tasked with the same mission.

He assured anchor Lloyd Robertson that Stephen Harper had won the night and potentially the election. Minutes later, my panel mates and I delivered the opposite verdict. On that occasion, voters mercifully agreed with our assessment. Paul Martin won that one by not coming on as strongly as Harper did.

Does all of the above mean that the widely accepted notion that voters are more influenced by the debate over the debate than by the exercise itself is off base? Not necessarily.

Anyone watching the Layton/Ignatieff 2011 duel in isolation would have caught, in that one-on-one moment, the NDP leader’s obvious strength and his Liberal rival’s equally obvious weakness.

The post-game replays of the best exchanges highlighted the contrast between the two performances in a black-and-white way that the actual debate the media watched and based its analysis on did not.

From where I’ve sat in the media gallery of dozens of election debates, it has been clear that debate excerpts that are subsequently played on a loop for 24 to 48 hours ultimately have more impact than the instant analysis of an army of pundits.

If I missed Tuesday’s Ontario debate, I would watch those first and take stock of the analysis a distant second. But I would know that neither is a great substitute for watching the real thing.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.