Leaders’ debates aren’t won on points. They’re not won on substance and they’re not won on style. Here’s the thing: they’re not won in the room.
After all, it’s not the moderators but the millions of Ontarians whose votes Doug Ford, Andrea Horwath and Kathleen Wynne are fighting for that are the real judges, and most of them weren’t watching. The three leaders have worked with their teams for weeks to finely craft messages that will resonate with the key voter groups they’re trying to reach – and actually reach them. That means radiating beyond the debate in media coverage, social channels, and Monday morning water cooler conversation.
Each leader entered the room with a clear agenda and specific goals set by the counters of the campaign so far. The question is, who best achieved their goals? A definitive answer is a few days away, but there are some things we can glean already.
The Progressive Conservatives entered the election campaign with a seemingly-insurmountable 20-point lead; the most recent polls suggest they now trail the NDP, although still, at this point, well-positioned to win. Nevertheless, Ford needed to turn things around in this final and most crucial debate. How did he plan to do it?
Let Doug be Doug
There are plenty of old political hands that scoff at Ford’s man-of-the-people line, and they’re pretty much the folks Ford’s supporters want to toss out of Queen’s Park. Ford comes across as authentic, unpolished and real; for his supporters the occasional stutter is a feature, not a bug. His core appeal was there in first lines of his opening: “I’m for the little guy; I’m for the people.” He focused on hydro, taxes and jobs, the most important issues for his base. While Wynne and Horwath showed a command of facts, getting into the weeds on policy, Ford kept returning to a few core messages and numbers. This repetition of simple phrases and figures is an effective strategy: most viewers probably couldn’t tell you how much Wynne allocated to hospitals in the 2018 budget, but they’ll remember Ford pledged to cut gas taxes by 10 cents a litre.
Scare Ontarians about the NDP
It’s not enough for Ford to stay true to his brand; he has to win back some of the voters he’s lost to Horwath’s New Democrats in recent weeks while appealing to centrist Liberals who see the writing on the wall for their leader. Ford trained nearly all his attacks on Horwath, who escaped the first two debates relatively unscathed, and his strategy was not the soft touch. Ford repeatedly raised the spectre of economic catastrophe should the NDP return to power. One other figure viewers will likely remember: 125,000, the number of jobs lost under the last NDP government.
Look like a Premier
This is a key test for any opposition leader. It’s an ineffable quality that is as much about tone and body language as content. Ford’s first priority was to not look like a bully, and on that score he mostly passed. But for much of the debate he appeared uncomfortable and nervous. On split screen, when listening to his opponents, he tended to smile fixedly, staring straight ahead rather than engaging with them. For much of the runtime he had trouble connecting with people in the room, although he did seem to grow more at ease as the debate went on, appealing directly into the camera to voters at home.
Coming off two strong debate performances and a string of favourable polls, Horwath had the wind at her back. The debate was an opportunity for the NDP leader to solidify her support and build her momentum. She had to look like a confident front-runner while displaying the empathy that characterizes her public image. She also had to fend off two opponents with her in their sights. How did she plan to do it?
Put Doug Ford in a box
With the Liberals in a distant third place, the real fight is between the PCs and NDP. Ford’s base is unshakeable, and even Tories who may be uncomfortable with his populist bent are unlikely to cast their lot with the NDP. Job one for Horwath, then, was to limit Ford’s appeal to those locked-in voter groups. She mostly laughed off what she called “scare mongering” about the economy under New Democrats, then took advantage of the PCs’ lack of a platform to sketch in details of her own (thousands of nurses and teachers fired) and raise questions about Ford’s honesty with voters.
Present a clear vision for change
Some voters considering the NDP have bad memories of Rae days. Others have tentatively parked their vote with the New Democrats but haven’t paid close attention to the campaign so far. More than ever, it’s incumbent on Horwath to convince voters her party is ready to lead. The NDP in this campaign have a detailed and serious platform, but in the crucible of a debate it’s emotional appeal that counts most. Horwath clearly enunciated her party’s values, using real-life examples and expressing empathy to voters who are struggling to make ends meet. She presented a positive image of an NDP government’s objectives and ideals.
Look like a Premier
In the campaign’s first two debates Horwath appeared relaxed, knowledgeable, serious and above the fray. Entering this round at first place in the polls, she needed that same breezy confidence under greater scrutiny from her opponents. Unfortunately for the NDP, Horwath’s scrappy performance looked more Leader of the Opposition than Premier. She frequently interrupted the other speakers, particularly Wynne, and her body-language under criticism was sometimes tense and angry – see, for example, the split-screen as Wynne challenged her on labour disruption. Horwath was at her best when talking about the voters she’s met or the issues she’s passionate about.
Running third in the polls and less than two weeks from Election Day, the debate was Kathleen Wynne’s last chance at turning around her flagging campaign. Ironically, this may have lent the Premier a certain freedom; after all, she didn’t have much to lose. Her goal was nothing less than running a perfect debate and hoping her opponents knocked themselves out. How did she plan to do that?
Remind voters why they like Liberals
Wynne’s opening statement was structured around a dramatic embrace of her unpopularity: sorry, not sorry. Sorry that she’s not well-liked; not sorry for what her government has done. This points to the Liberals’ key closing strategy, reminding voters of popular Liberal programs and giving them permission to vote for these programs even if they don’t like the leader. Wynne adeptly defended her government’s record under Ford’s and Horwath’s attacks while finding opportunities to name-drop full-day kindergarten, free post-secondary and shuttered coal plants. And she did it while seeming more empathetic, less of a policy wonk, than in debates past.
Reclaim the centre
Since Wynne’s ascension as Premier, Liberal strategy has hinged on cozying up to the NDP, then presenting Liberals as the only party that can prevent a PC government. Naturally, that strategy depends on Liberals not being in third place. Now that they are, Wynne had to quickly cut a contrast with the NDP she’s spent the last five years trying to erase. By picking out a few wedge issues where the parties disagree, including willingness to legislate striking public employees back to work and subsidizing parents who place their children in for-profit daycare, Wynne painted Horwath as an ideologue in contrast to Liberal pragmatism.
Deliver a knock-out blow
A strong debate performance is not enough for Wynne to turn her campaign around. At most, it might result in a modest bounce, likely to fizzle before election day. She had to bait her opponents into saying something terribly wrong. Unfortunately for Wynne, neither of the other leaders said anything immediately disqualifying, and she didn’t appear to land any devastating critiques.
ALL THREE LEADERS
Perhaps the most important goal for all three leaders is one that comes after the cameras have shut off. In the closing weeks of the campaign team Ford needs to convince undecided voters to cast their lot with the Tories; Horwath has to build on her momentum by attracting more Liberals and voters looking for change; Kathleen Wynne needs an enormous, and increasingly unlikely, shift in the polls. The debate will not do any of these things on its own; instead, each party will seek to influence the meaning and moments voters take away from it – including those who didn’t watch.
Define the post-debate conversation
The most important audience is the millions of voters who didn’t see the debate. What will polls say? What 15-second clips will they see endlessly on the news? What memes will dominate social media? What will voters remember when they go to the polls? What is the overall, ill-defined, general feeling coming out of the debate? It will take several days to sort all of this out. In the meantime, you can bet all three parties will be deploying their candidates and supporters, social media armies and PR gurus to try to bend the conversation in their direction.
Make no mistake: Media framing is important. The Twittersphere is influential. But pundits and social media can be wrong. Stick with H+K as take stock of what’s being said in the news and on social, as we cut through the spin, and – most importantly – as we track which way voters are turning. We’ll continue to provide you our insight all the way through June 7th, and beyond.