“One of the really positive things about this debate... is that the leaders focused on issues and not on personal attacks,” Soberman says.

Election 2015: David Soberman analyzes the first leaders' debate

Canadians got their first major taste of the federal election campaign in a two-hour television debate on August 6 that saw Prime Minister Stephen Harper defending himself from attacks by three party leaders over his handling of the economy and the environment. 

The Maclean’s magazine debate, moderated by its political editor, Paul Wells, brought Harper, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May together on stage for the first time. 

U of T News interviewed David Soberman, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and an expert on political advertising, to get his views on everything from the leaders’ body language to how they dealt with issues important to Canadians heading towards the Oct. 19 vote.

Was there a winner?  If so, how did he or she impress you? 
I feel that all party leaders did credible jobs of presenting their positions and nobody scored a knockout punch. However, two things happened that I think may change the dynamic somewhat:

  1. Elizabeth May appeared to be a politician in command of major issues and demonstrated understanding that was surprising. Perhaps before this debate, she was more of a “special interest” politician. Her opinion on the environment is clear but she expressed clear positions on other issues.
  2. Justin Trudeau appeared to be more articulate and in command of the issues than many expected. He handled himself in the Clarity Act interchange with Mulcair quite well. More than anything, I think he may have negated the image he had of being incompetent and frivolous because of heavy spending by the Conservatives on attack ads.

Last night was the first time these four people were on stage together. What kind of dynamics were at play?  Did you sense any type of body language that revealed nervousness?  Was anyone trying to be too earnest?
I think Harper appeared very relaxed and comfortable with the facts. Trudeau was combative but more polished than expected. Ms. May in many ways may be the best classical debater. I think Mulcair was trying to appear prime ministerial and for him this is new. Perhaps he was the most uncomfortable because I felt that he was trying at times during the debate to hold himself back.

There was no knockout blow. These happen infrequently in Canadian politics. Did any leader do anything to knock himself or herself out of the race?
No knockout blows, as I said. I disagree that Trudeau needed a knockout blow to get back into the game. The parties are all very close and the campaign has 10 weeks left. I think in many ways, Trudeau benefits from the fact that Harper was the main focus of attack by the three opposition leaders.  Now the Conservatives cannot “guarantee victory” by hammering Trudeau. Harper needs to worry about both major opposition parties.

The focus of the debate was the economy. Did any leader differentiate himself or herself to lead Canadians to think: “This person has a plan to help my family in volatile economic times?
The debate was quite confusing on this issue as Harper talked about what the Conservatives have done and Trudeau and Mulcair talked about what the Conservatives have not done. The problem that all three leaders have is that it is difficult to explain the details of their plans and how they will be financed. They have not yet figured out a simple way to explain this to Canadians.

For example, the Liberals (Trudeau) talk about taxing the rich more and providing a break to the middle class… but how much? What is the accounting for this?  Mulcair talks about increasing the minimum wage as a magical way to give more money to low income Canadians. But many studies have shown that this can also increase unemployment… once again what is the accounting? I think the bottom line is that Harper and the Conservatives are vulnerable here as we are in a recession and we are the only G7 country in this situation. Harper did not articulate a clear plan to address this; most of his comments related to his past record and not the action he will take if elected.

Which leader do you think reached out best to those Canadians outside his or her core voter group? 
Probably Elizabeth May. She appeared credible as a person not just on environmental issues but also on other important topics. I also think that Trudeau made some headway in erasing some of the negative halo created by Conservative attack ads. Harper handled the Senate issue (and mess) quite well. I thought Harper would have had a harder time when the Senate came up as a topic. The opposition leaders could have been more aggressive on this issue.

There will be several more debates during the 77-day campaign. At the end of the day, do they really matter? Will Canadians simply look at the leaders and say: “I just trust this person more than the others?” 
I think they matter a lot as they help Canadians understand the leaders better and also understand the issues. One of the really positive things about this debate in relation to political debates in the United States or France, for example, is that the leaders focused on issues and not on personal attacks. The most important thing in democracy is that people can make informed decisions. My wish is that political advertising would focus more on issues and less on attack ads. Attack ads generally do little to help voters understand the issues and the alternative perspectives on these issues provided by each party.

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