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Election 2015: did anyone win that debate on the economy?

Depending on the pundit, winner might be Mulcair, Trudeau, Harper – even May, professor says

The three major national party leaders argued about economic issues on Sept. 17 in Calgary – but it is unclear whether voters are now better informed about their views, Professor Chris Cochrane says.

U of T News has been interviewing University of Toronto experts for their take on campaign issues, the debates and polling during the lead-up to the Oct. 19 vote.

Read more Election 2015 stories

In the debate Thursday night, the leaders argued – sometimes by out-shouting each other – about creating a new economy, taxes, the cost of housing, infrastructure spending, the energy sector, the minimum wage and immigration, leading to a discussion about Canada taking in Syrian refugees.

Only Prime Minister Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau were invited to the Globe and Mail sponsored debate, seen on CPAC and lived-streamed elsewhere. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May wasn’t included. Instead, she live-tweeted answers all evening to questions from moderator David Walmsley of the Globe, at one point chastising Harper for his lack of action on climate change. 

Cochrane is a professor of political science at U of T Scarborough. His analysis of the debate follows:

“It is important to keep in mind that debates rarely have lasting effects on a political campaign. This is not the same as saying that debates are unimportant. For example, the leaders in these debates, at least at the federal level, are almost always good enough to get by without doing catastrophic damage to their campaigns. As a result, debates may well be important, even if they tend not to affect the outcome of an election.

“One intriguing aspect of these debates involves the remarkable differences in people’s perceptions about how the leaders performed. Depending on who you listened to (or read) this morning, the debate was said to have been won by Mulcair, or Trudeau, or Harper, or even May (on Twitter). Are people watching the same debate? Probably not.

“In the most obvious case, partisanship can operate as a “perceptual screen” that conceals the weaknesses of a favourite party’s leader and highlights his or her strengths. Partisanship also operates in the opposite direction, by focusing attention on the weaknesses and missteps of other leaders.

“Nonetheless, partisanship is too simple as an explanation for these differences. Even non-partisans come away with very different interpretations. There is also evidence that partisans tend to see strengths and weaknesses – at least the clear ones – in more or less the same way. Yet, people have very different intuitive reactions to the same observations, which is interesting.  

“A second intriguing aspect is the dominance of boxing metaphors in description of the debates – “jabs,” “knockout punches,” and so on. The use of combat metaphors in political “campaigns” is a common topic of parody, usually by exaggeration. It would be difficult to parody boxing metaphors in our discussions of debates, given their ubiquitousness.

“A third question about debates is whether and how they operate to inform voters about the election. There are three elements of this: Who watches the debates? Did they learn anything new? And, if so, how does this information influence their vote? 

“On the one hand, most of the people watching last night’s debate probably already knew a great deal about the candidates and their platforms. I doubt they learned anything new. On the other hand, most of the people who could have learned a great deal from last night’s debate probably didn’t watch it at all. If anything, many of these Canadians will be left to judge the debate on the basis of what they hear from commentators – who won, who lost, who dodged, and who hit whom with what.  

“A professional boxer once told me that the best way to watch boxing on TV is with the volume off, so that you’re not swayed by how the commentators describe the action. The best way to watch a political debate is with the volume on.” 

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