Confessions of a debate pundit
Thierry Giasson (Université Laval) has published about televised political debates in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, political journalism in the Canadian Journal of Communication, politicians’ image management in Questions de communication.
So the debate on the debates has finally come to an end. Voters now enjoy a bit of calm in from the media bubble they are forced in during debate week. One of the intriguing aspects of this 48 hours political frenzy relates to whom is invited to partake in the experiment of evaluating debate performances. Most debate analysts are ex-politicians or ex-political advisors who have engaged in debate preparation and/or performance in the past and ground their observations and comments on these experiences. Many are field reporters who speak of contextual factors like set design, negotiations over questions formats, choice of themes and ease of the participants during the exchanges. Some are pollsters who serve the clichéd one-two punch about who won and who lost according to their in-house flash polls (the Voice of the Electorate!). And others, like myself, are academics who have studied different aspects of televised debates and/or are Canadian politics specialists.
What is intriguing about the phenomenon is the pundits’ selection procedure. Any news outlet will obviously ask its chief political correspondent to join in. But for the other panel experts, selection seems somewhat random and there are those usual suspects asked to return to the spin process every election cycle. Why them?
I’m one of those usual suspects. Every election since 2005, I’m asked by different Canadian news organizations to comment/analyze leaders’ performances during federal and provincial televised debates. The media contacting me change every time but their questions remain the same: Who won? Who lost? Who threw the best punch? Will the debate have an impact on voters?
The same questions every single time.
Nevertheless, I accept to participate because I’m a debate junkie. I wrote my dissertation on them, I find them both informative and entertaining and I still believe they represent the highest form of tactical marketing politicians can use to both convey their positions and ideals directly to the electorate and confront their opponents’ positions and ideals. So every election I watch the debates and answer the same questions. And I’m always wondering how useful this information is to voters. I base my analyses on comparisons of numerous (debate freak I told you!) provincial, federal and even American presidential debates that I have studied and analyzed in my research. My comments might offer an added value over those from advisors, pollsters and reporters. My big advantage over ex-politicos: my comments are non-partisan. My big advantage over pollsters: I’m not promoting my business. My big advantage over political reporters: I’m not cynical about politics.
Yet what I’m considering important in debates could be completely irrelevant to voters. For instance I shared the opinion tweeted by many last Tuesday night that Prime Minister Harper’s constant camera stare was inappropriate, disrespectful to his opponents and made him look robotic. Many pundits felt otherwise, seeing in this awkward strategy a great way for the PM to address the nation directly. How then are voters combining these two very opposite view points in their evaluation of Mr. Harper’s performance? Robotic or Prime-ministerial?
Therefore, I can’t help wondering what voters are really gaining from this generalized exercise of impressionist punditry (pardon the redundancy!)? Do you follow the debate over the debates? What do you make of this process? How useful is it for you?