Amid Pandemic, Leaders’ Debates Vital to BC, Saskatchewan Elections

Amid Pandemic, Leaders’ Debates Vital to BC, Saskatchewan Elections
(L-R) Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson, Green Leader Sonia Furstenau, NDP Leader John Horgan, before the start of the election debate at the Chan Centre in Vancouver on Oct. 13, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward)
Lee Harding
Leaders’ debates may be unlikely to change election results in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, but experts say the exercise is invaluable for 21st-century voters, especially during the pandemic.

Following the Oct. 13 televised debate in British Columbia, pollster Angus Reid found that 49 percent of voters would vote NDP, 33 percent Liberal, and 14 percent Green. The 16-point NDP lead remains within the 7- to 18-point spread the party has enjoyed since the writ was dropped.

“All things being equal, debates don’t typically move the needle. The rare one does,” David Black, a communications professor at Royal Roads University on Vancouver Island, told The Epoch Times.

The poll found that overall, 29 percent of voters thought NDP Leader John Horgan performed the best, while 23 percent chose Green Leader Sonia Furstenau, and 15 percent chose BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson. Twenty percent thought there was no clear winner and 13 percent were unsure.

Unsurprisingly, the poll showed that British Columbians had partisan opinions when evaluating debate performances. Fifty-four percent of NDP voters thought Horgan won, and none picked Wilkinson. Among Liberal voters, only 5 percent thought Horgan won, and 45 percent thought Wilkinson did best.

“In a visual medium, the ability to convey presence and warmth and authenticity—even though those aren’t necessarily the most important things in politics—matter enormously,” Black said. “Furstenau was better able I think to work within the visual grammar of television and be warm and personable and real.”

Black admires Wilkinson’s intellect as a Rhodes scholar, doctor, and lawyer, but said “charm is not his strength. And he struggled, I think. … He’s not been able to bring that warmth or that everyman persona that Horgan is fairly good at.”

The internet era also allows for debate comments to echo long after the clash is over. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe tweeted a video of a 21-second debate segment where he attacked the NDP’s deficit spending plans, then pointed to taxpayers at home and said, “It’s going to come from you.”

Moe’s Saskatchewan Party has led the NDP by 19 to 27 points throughout the campaign. In past elections, large leads did not prevent former leader Brad Wall from making further gains. Wall, at the NDP’s expense, gained 3–4 percent support in 2016 post-debate and 3 percent support in 2011 post-debate, thereby increasing leads by about six points.

A mid-September poll by the University of Saskatchewan found that 34 percent of voters were undecided, but that figure had already dropped to 21 percent just prior to the Oct. 14 debate between Moe and NDP Leader Ryan Meili, according to Research Co.

The latest Angus Reid poll shows voters are leaning heavily toward the Sask. Party, at 60 percent, while just 33 percent intend to vote for the NDP.

Jacqueline Biollo, a principal at Aurora Strategy Group, says debates can influence both “decided” and undecided voters.

“Even confirmed voters can be swayed if the mannerisms of their favoured candidate are highlighted differently during the debate, or if the leaders’ responses to key policy and platform initiatives stir a reaction,” Biollo says.

“Statistics show a leaders’ debate makes little to no difference in a campaign, or that the difference is marginal at best. But as has been proven, every vote counts, so I’d say the difference is monumental.”

She says well-moderated debates provide leaders with a great showcase, especially when they give clear answers—which doesn’t always happen.

“Recent debates have been an embarrassment to the process and provided voters more of an opportunity to judge a candidate’s lack of professionalism, poise, and leadership skills,” she said.

This provides “less of an opportunity to learn more about party platforms and priorities, and more of an opportunity to be disenchanted by politics and disengaged in the political process,” she added.

Black says debates provide humanity and unpredictability that scripted media-driven campaigns often lack, especially during a pandemic when “candidates are not coming to our doorsteps.”

“We want and need our politics to be personalized because politics can be cruel and abstract and tied up in systems and process,” he says.

“[Due to the pandemic], we have a virtualized election, which is so inconsistent with the incarnate nature of politics where you go to the rally, you go to the speech, you see the candidate at the doors. It’s part of the loveliness of politics, the romance of it.

“But now it’s entirely virtualized, where the IT department matters more than the political strategists.”