The Daily Exchange: What does each leader have to demonstrate in the debate?
Assessment from Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy:
I have a colleague, Liberal pundit Rob Silver, who was once an internationally-ranked debater. And before that, I worked with his wife, Katie Telford, also a Liberal and also an internationally-ranked debater. They taught me a few things about strategic debate prep, creative, on-your-feet thinking, how to stand by your argument and, helpfully, how to lose to better debaters.
In talking with Rob about the upcoming leaders debate, he raised an interesting point: the televised leaders' debate is not a traditional debate.
There are no judges scoring on logical consistency or factual accuracy. The moderator, Steve Paikin, will not be holding a score card. The debate will not be won or lost on a set framework, but on the perception of who the audience likes and, importantly, who they tell pollsters they like, which in turn informs the media's decision about who "won." This is why who “won” - who really won - is not usually apparent until 48-72 hours afterward.
This, of course, doesn't hold true if there is a solid “knock-out-punch” from one of the leaders. But this rarely happens, and my crystal ball tells me that won't happen Tuesday night.
To date, the campaign has not been a divisive debate over ideas or policy; except for a quick, early, shift to the right for Mr. Hudak, it has been a steady, dull ride.
So in the absence of the “knock-out-punch” what do the Leaders need to demonstrate?
Mr. McGuinty has the toughest job going into the debate as he has the most to lose. He needs to keep the coalition of voters that elected him in 2003 and 2007. For them, he needs to demonstrate that he is still the authentic, centrist, guy they voted for then - the one who best understands their values and priorities. This means his primary jobs are to highlight his accomplishments and lay out his vision for the future.
He also has two secondary jobs. First, he needs to make Mr. Hudak look "small."
McGuinty can do this by talking accomplishments, and also by acknowledging that while he made some tough, unpopular decisions, we are better off because of them. He should also contrast his big ideas (e.g. health care, the green economy, post secondary education) with Hudak's small ideas (e.g., cancelling contracts and chain gangs). In short, he should talk "world peace" while Mr. Hudak talks pocket change.
For Ms. Horwath, Mr. McGuinty needs to demonstrate to Ontarians that the NDP platform is fiction, without looking like he is personally attacking Ms. Horwath. He can achieve this by being clear up front – an attack on your platform is not a personal attack against their leader.
Mr. Hudak needs to distance himself from the angry brand he carries from the first week of the campaign.
His team needs to hope that the red tory audience (I mentioned in a previous post) is watching, and is open to knowing more about him. For him to appeal, he needs to have two goals: to look and act less like a frat boy, more like a Premier; and to portray that he is safe not scary.
He can do this by strategically attacking the Premier (the way his campaign did this spring) as “out of touch.” He needs to pick up on the narrative that it’s time for the Premier to go, because voters just can’t trust him. But attacks on the Premier alone will not sway the red tory vote, which is needed for Mr. Hudak to form government. He needs to show something to them besides being “Mr. Caustic.” He needs to be "big" - or at least bigger than he has been to this point in the campaign. He can do this by talking about two to three policy planks that don't involve simply ripping up existing government policies.
Ms. Horwath needs to define herself as a real contender for the Premier's office, not just a likeable person. In order to do so, she needs to articulate and defend the parts of her platform that are, charitably, weak.
Her biggest challenge will be the format of the debate. The one-on-one, six-round style, will not allow her to rest on her recent message track, which can be summed up as, "the boys are personally attacking me." The fact is, she will have to defend her platform and counterpunch when Messers McGuinty and Hudak point out that her math doesn't add up. Simply invoking the spirit of Jack Layton or Tommy Douglas won't be enough.
Assessment from Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper:
First, all the party leaders need to maintain a disciplined focus on the million or more voters who will be watching the debate. What the politicians say to one another is less important than what they say and convey to the people at home.
Second, they should banish from their vocabulary and their thinking the concepts of "winning" and "losing." The debate isn't a boxing match (and certainly not a mud-wrestling match). It won't be settled by a knock-out punch and it won't be decided on points. It's a chance to speak to the voters, so members of the public can size up the candidates and draw their own conclusions.
Opportunities for the leaders to speak directly to Ontarians, and for Ontarians to hear directly from the leaders, are extremely limited. A TV commercial is short. A sound bite during a TV newscast is even shorter. The debate presents the only opportunity for a mass audience of voters to hear the leaders speak unfiltered and unedited.
A well-run campaign will focus all of its resources on two activities: voter persuasion and voter mobilisation: persuading voters to choose (or stick with) you, and ensuring that supportive voters vote. There is nobody in the TV studio to persuade or to mobilise; they're all in living rooms. Talk of winning and losing is at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction. An effective campaign will concentrate on persuading and mobilising the TV audience.
What Mr. McGuinty needs to do
Mr. McGuinty has demonstrated resilience and tenacity so far, but still faces a significant challenge. Polling indicates that nearly two-thirds of voters want change. That's a slap in the face to an incumbent running on his record. The Liberal leader needs to address voters' frustration head on.
He must also confront the issue of credibility or trust. Several times he has promised not to raise taxes; several times he has raised taxes or introduced new ones. Voters are wise. They have long memories. Whether or not the broken-tax-promise issue is raised, voters are thinking about it. Mr. McGuinty needs to acknowledge the broken promises, show contrition, and give voters a reason to move on.
What Mr. Hudak needs to do
Mr. Hudak must do more than make the case for change. He must demonstrate that he offers change. Specific change. Concrete change. Change that will help ordinary families get ahead.
This should involve linking the PC platform (changebook) to the case for change. Using examples meaningful to the voters, on topics that matter to voters (such as jobs, affordability and safe communities), he should explain why change is needed and what specific change his party proposes to deliver.
Mr. Hudak must remember that Dalton McGuinty can't be persuaded to vote PC. In other words, the Liberal leader isn't part of his target audience. The two of them will obviously have one-on-one engagements; the trick is to end the two-way discussion, quickly and effectively, then turn and speak (through the camera) directly to voters at home.
What Ms. Horwath needs to do
Ms. Horwath and the NDP are heavily advertising that they offer a third option to voters who might be dissatisfied with the other two parties. The ads convey little of substance.
The NDP leader can't maintain such vagueness through the entire debate. She has to talk about concrete proposals and plans. Change can be good or bad; what kind does he party offer?
She must also address, head on, the NDP's biggest vulnerability: the party's sorry record of tax-and-spend recklessness and economic mismanagement. With unemployment high and with productivity growth starting to wane, she will need to convince Ontarians that the NDP has learned its lesson, has changed, and can be trusted not to wreck havoc with the economy.
Assessment from Jeff Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP:
The Ontario election has been underway for three weeks. For many voters, though, the debate will be the first opportunity to look at the leaders of the three major parties and hear directly from them about their plans for Ontario’s future.
Dalton McGuinty will tell voters he’s the steady, experienced leader they want captaining their ship through turbulent waters for the next four years. Want a stable majority government that doesn’t rock the boat? McGuinty is your guy.
The challenge for McGuinty is convincing the ship and crew he should stay in charge when most of them want to throw him overboard. The last eight years has been pretty tough sailing for many Ontarians and there is significant appetite for change.
Tim Hudak will make a mainstream appeal to Ontarians. He will make the case for change. If the Northern debate is a harbinger for things to come, he will deliver his message about jobs, cost of living, and big government with poise and confidence.
Hudak has two hills to climb. On the style side, he needs to avoid coming across like an over-rehearsed right-wing talking points machine. On substance, he needs to strike a reassuring note. He needs to shelve the angry-man routine we saw early in the campaign and demonstrate that he’s not reckless, that he’s not extreme, and that he can be trusted as premier.
Andrea Horwath will present herself as the positive alternative to the two old-line parties, as an agent of change with a solid plan to make life better and more affordable for everyday families. She will appeal to voters who are tired of McGuinty and want something different but have misgivings about Hudak.
Horwath’s high standing in public opinion polls means voters will expect her to demonstrate she’s up to the job of being premier. To do that, Horwath will have to explain in clear and compelling terms how New Democrat policies will make Ontario the fairer, more prosperous and more generous place she envisions. She will have to put to rest lingering questions about fiscal responsibility, a hurdle all successful New Democrat campaigns must surmount. And she will need to stay focused on the audience at home, and not make the mistake of getting caught up in debate dynamics. That's crucial to her being able to take advantage of her greatest strength - her ability to connect with voters.