The Daily Exchange: So did anyone win the leaders' debate?
So who won the debate?
It was NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. Hands down.
It’s not because Dalton McGuinty suffered a knockout blow – because he didn’t. In fact, I think he held his own in this debate. He defended his record fairly well from the jabs of both of his opponents. He even scored a few points of his own, notably when he went after Tim Hudak on the issue of tax credits for hiring new Canadians.
And it’s not because Hudak failed to land the blows or talk about his plans for change. He did both. Though he came across as slick and rehearsed, he did hurt McGuinty on the issues of taxes and credibility. And he laid out some of his alternative plans fairly well, like some of the tax reductions he is proposing.
So why is Horwath the winner? Horwath had the most to gain in this debate, and she delivered a strong performance. She emerged as a candidate who is knowledgeable, in touch with the needs of everyday people, and well suited to deal with Ontario’s jobs challenge, to make life more affordable for ordinary families and to deliver the public health care we need. She was confident. She was charming. She was plenty premierial.
The example Horwath cited – the Liberals' and PC Party’s support for more no-strings-attached corporate tax cuts – is a good one. Why should giving blank cheques to corporations be our top fiscal priority? There are better and more targeted ways to create jobs, like rewarding companies that actually create jobs. There are also more important things we need to do, like providing relief for families who are feeling the pinch and improving health care.
What does the post-debate public opinion research tell us?
Ipsos Reid conducted a flash poll after the debate. It found that “impressions of Horwath skyrocket, seen as leader with best policies, most likeable.”
“It was Andrea Horwath who made the biggest impression on Ontarians as 67% say they have an improved impression of her as a result of the debate, while just 10% say their impressions worsened, representing a net score of +57, effectively making her the real winner of the debate.”
By contrast, McGuinty scored a -2. Hudak scored a +3.
Clearly, Horwath exceeded expectations, and established herself as a legitimate alternative to four more years of McGuinty’s and Hudak’s tired old ideas that aren’t working.
What will all this mean in the campaign’s final few days?
Poll after poll shows that Ontarians who know Horwath like her and trust her. I suspect the people who got to know Horwath for the first time in the debate liked what they saw.
Let’s look at one more finding in that Ipsos Reid poll.
“With the NDP leader performing so well compared to expectations, it is interesting to note that one in ten (14%) viewers say they changed their mind about who they were going to vote for as a result of what they saw tonight, with the NDP appearing to be the biggest beneficiary among those who viewed the debates and reportedly switched their vote.”
We may well see progressive voters who are parking their votes with the Liberals, and voters who want change but are uneasy with Hudak, giving some serious thought to throwing their support to the Steeltown Scrapper.
- Jeffrey Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP
Assessment from Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy:
Which leader won the debate?
If you read the press releases each party issued last night you would think there were three winners in last night's debate.
But unlike Jeff, I am not going to proclaim a hands-down winner. My assessment is that all three leaders went in, and left, the debate in the same position.
Mr. McGuinty did what his team set out for him to do. Defend his record, ward off attacks from the opposition, and come out unscathed. Despite numerous attacks from Ms. Horwath and Mr. Hudak, Mr. McGuinty was able to stand his ground, and scored proactive points with his attacks on his opponents' stances on the HST and the new Canadian tax credit.
Mr. McGuinty was strongest on two points, both related, and both important. First, the need for a strong, non-Conservative voice representing Ontario's interests at the health accord negotiations. The second was when he was talking about protecting health/education services/stability from the Hudak approach (by which he meant the Rob Ford approach). Those points will certainly resonate with Liberals, and will likely resonate beyond.
Ms. Horwath's portrayal of herself of an "average mom having to balance a checkbook" may have gotten her noticed, but I hope viewers actually listened to what she was saying. The debate was her first introduction to most Ontarians, and she didn't fall down. She came across as nice and energetic (despite her numerous interruptions), but also like a stereotypical new democrat - long on empathy and stories about the working man and woman, but woefully short on ideas that make sense. For example, taxes. Ontarians are sophisticated enough to understand that raising corporate taxes kills jobs (you know, the jobs "workers" need), even if you do give some of it back in a tax credit.
Mr. Hudak came across better than I expected - he managed to suppress the frat boy streak, and put in a credible performance, particularly for a first-time leader. The question remains, will that performance play beyond the people who are already voting for him? It's hard to say. It probably won't help him that Rob Ford's (Conservative) City Council voted to sell the beloved zoo moments before the debate began. In some ways, despite a good performance, he may no longer be the master of his own destiny.
Going back to my initial assessment - that the leaders went in and left the debate in the same position - begs the question what happens next? With one week to go it is still too close to call. Expect all three parties to ramp up their paid advertising as they try to shape a ballot question for Ontarians to consider while casting their votes.
Assessment from Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper:
Jeff, I think you know what I am going to say, because my position on debates has been consistent over the years.
Debates are not “won” or “lost.” We don’t score them like boxing matches.
For reasons of momentum, I suppose, the campaigns feel they need to indulge in the old paradigm of winning and losing. For example, the NDP is celebrating its leader’s "debate victory."
The website of my party (PCs) likewise proclaimed a "K.O." victory. I am comforted, however, that the website copy writer was probably not involved in debate preparation. Last night Mr. Hudak clearly knew that connecting his message with voters was more important than connecting a verbal blow with the Premier’s chin.
Debates are an opportunity for the politicians to speak directly to the voters at home. Each leader enters the debate – or should enter the debate – with definite goals: the messages he or she wants to convey to the home audience, and how he or she wants to be seen.
The leader who meets these objectives has succeeded. A leader who fails to meet the objectives has, well, failed.
It’s possible for more than one candidate to succeed in meeting his or her objectives. In fact, it’s possible for everyone to achieve his or her goals.
So what happened last night?
If Mr. McGuinty’s goal was to hang on, to hold his own, then he did just that. At the same time, I am not sure he converted many more voters to the Liberal camp. His performance was a bit like treading water: it kept him afloat but did not move him any closer to shore. (Come to think of it, maybe that explains all the thrashing of hands.)
That said, the Premier missed several opportunities to connect with voters at home. Particularly when he was forced to address his broken promises (his pledges not to hike taxes) Mr. McGuinty had difficulty looking people in the eye (through the camera) to explain himself. I don’t think that failure was accidental.
A final comment on the Premier’s performance: I am not sure how effective it was to rattle off all those health care statistics. The thing about health care is this: every family has experience with our health care system. People’s actual experience with health care (good or bad) is much more important in shaping their views than any statistics (pro or con) touted by a politician.
Tim Hudak, meanwhile, did an effective job of speaking directly to voters at home about the need for change and the type of change he will deliver. He used examples and analogies to which real people can relate. Assuming that those were his objectives, he clearly achieved them.
And Andrea Horwath? I think that she met the objectives of presenting herself to voters and coming across as likeable, down-to-earth and concerned about Ontarians. That said, she revealed a habit that undermined her goals: Ms. Horwath tended to heckle and interrupt a great deal, though always in a good-natured way. I thought that the interruptions worked contrary to her attempt to position herself as new and different, and above the fray. Heckling is old-school politics, not new and different.