This past Thursday was the first leader’s debate of the 2015 election. This was the first opportunity that all four federal party leaders had to engage each other directly. Media (and political parties) often follow leader’s debates with discussions of who won and lost. Such discussion tends to look at who made stronger points or who presented themselves the best. The problem with this approach to analyzing multiparty leadership debates is that it misses the degree to which each leader is trying to do something different. Canadian leadership debates are not a single contest between four leaders vying for the same pool of votes, but rather multiple contests between pairs (and sometimes three) of leaders trying to win over subsets of voters. Because of this, picking a winner difficult. Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper, for example, might debate each other to what appears to be a draw, but both come out winners if doing so marginalizes Justin Trudeau and allows them to take votes from the Liberals. Harper could even be beaten by Mulcair, but still come out a winner if the debate makes it look like the election is primarily a contest between the NDP and Conservatives. With this in mind, this post will provide some thoughts regarding the different situations of each leader and the way that they handled the debate.
The leader in the easiest situation was probably Stephen Harper. With no parties to his right, his only substantial competitor for votes is the Liberal party. Additionally, the first past the post system in Canada means that he really only needs to win 37%-40% of the vote to gain a majority. He’s not there yet, but his task is relatively straight forward. He needs to take 7-8 percentage points from the Liberal party. Because he has no competition to his right, Harper can spend the entire debate (and the indeed the entire election campaign) focused on this one goal. The strategy for the Conservatives in this election is the same as the strategy they have pursued over the last four, try to win centre-right voters from the Liberals. It was no surprise then to see Harper spend most of the debate trying to convince Canadians that the economy is strong and making the case for middle class tax cuts and benefits. One way that Harper can do this is by engaging Mulcair in a debate over the economy that either overshadows anything that Justin Trudeau does, or makes Mulcair and Trudeau look like they hold the same position. This is the reason that Harper tried to make the economic debate about his record in government. As much as possible Harper wants to make the election a competition between him and Mulcair and while making Trudeau look like the less qualified and relevant of the two main opposition leaders. A debate over the economy between Harper and Mulcair is not a problem for Harper, because the votes he is trying to appeal to are unlikely to be agree with the NDP’s assessment of the economy or economic policies. When engaging Mulcair, Harper just needs to talk about why he is different, he does not need to try to convince voters. A debate with the NDP over the economy suits Harper because there are probably enough centre-right voters in the Liberal party willing to strategically vote against the NDP to give Harper a majority.
Engagement with Trudeau is a little more tricky. Harper can be successful if he can make the Liberals and the NDP look like very similar parties. If voters see both the NDP and Liberals as centre-left parties, the Conservatives can take the centre-right of the spectrum for themselves. Even if there are more centre-left voters than centre-right voters, split voting on the left should give the Conservatives a path to a majority. To that end Harper’s attempt engage the opposition as a whole instead of individually made a lot of sense. This is why Harper consistently referred to the opposition leaders as “those guys” and why his closing statement made no reference to the Liberals or NDP by name, but rather accused the opposition parties as a whole of seeking higher taxes and benefits. The less distinct the NDP and the Liberals are from each other, the more likely the centre-right is to back the Conservatives.
The person in the second easiest situation was likely Elizabeth May. Where Harper’s is trying to get 40% of the vote, getting to 10% would be seen as a win for May. Because her vote base is smaller, May can afford to take positions further away from the middle of the political spectrum. She can challenge the other leaders on the issues that she and her vote base care about without fear that doing so will prevent her from expanding her support. This comes through most clearly on environmental issues. May can present a principled critique of the other parties on issues such as pipelines because her potential supporters are all highly critical of pipelines. In contrast, both Mulcair and Trudeau are trying to win voters who are for and against pipelines and so have to be careful about taking positions to far in either direction. The challenge for May is to remain relevant in a debate where she is the least likely of the four leaders to be in a position to influence policy after the election. In this respect May did extremely well. Because she attacked the government’s record in an informed and well thought through manner, she was impossible to ignore. That she went after Mulcair at points also helped her by forcing Mulcair to engage with her on environmental issues. May did exactly what a small party leader is best able to do. She kept the other leaders honest by forcing them to respond to well thought through and supported attacks.
Like Harper, Mulcair is trying to capture enough moderate voters to win government, but Mulcair faces more competition than Harper. Mulcair’s best chance to expand his support lies in taking voters from the Liberal party. He therefore has an incentive to try to paint himself as the strongest critic of Harper and the most likely to defeat him. Unlike Harper though, Mulcair does not have a record to run on and the distinctions between the NDP and Liberals are less clear. The NDP has been moving to the centre of the political spectrum in order to gain votes at the same time as the Liberals have been forced towards the centre-left of the political spectrum by the Conservative’s success. The Liberals and NDP are increasingly competitors for the centre-left of the Canadian political spectrum. In order to win this competition Mulcair has to demonstrate that the NDP is the more competent of the Liberals and the NDP, and that his party is the more likely to the two to beat the Conservatives. The second task is difficult to accomplish in a debate, but the first task is certainly possible. This is why Mulcair’s comments in the debate included numerous statistical references, and he emphasized his ability to work with Premiers and world leaders as well as his work as Quebec’s Environment Minister. If the Liberals fail to distinguish themselves from the NDP and the NDP maintains its lead over them in the polls, the NDP stands a good chance of winning most of the anti-Conservative vote. The means that Mulcair does not have to outdebate Trudeau or Harper, he just needs to come off as moderate enough and competent enough to maintain his existing lead over the Liberals.
A second difference between Harper and Mulcair’s situations is that Mulcair faces an additional challenge in the form of Elizabeth May and the Green party. Mulcair has to be careful in the way that he positions the NDP in the debate. If he takes too strong an pro-environment position he could lose working-class voters afraid environmental regulations will cost them their jobs, but if he does not take a strong enough position he could lose environmentalist voters to the Greens. This is largely responsible for the heavy emphasis placed in Mulcair’s debating on sustainable development and mixing environmental regulation with economic growth. Mulcair can turn the presence of May in the debate to his advantage. May provides a nice foil between a moderate and more extreme position on a number of issues, including the environment, and allowed Mulcair to demonstrate how moderate the NDP has become. This came through most clearly in the discussion of pipelines where Mulcair characterized the Greens as opposed to all pipelines, the Conservatives as for all pipelines, and the NDP as the party that would carefully consider and approve only those pipelines that would be of most benefit to Canada. In doing so Mulcair presented a political spectrum to Canadians where the Conservatives occupied the centre-right, the Greens the extreme environmentalist position, the NDP the moderate left, and the Liberals where nowhere to be found. This is exactly the spectrum the the NDP needs to create if they are to be most successful.
Of all of the leaders in the debate, Justin Trudeau had the most difficult task. He has to carve out a distinct space for the Liberal party in a political world where the NDP is pulling away his centre-left voters, the Conservatives his centre-right voters, and the Greens can threaten his environmentalist voters. Trudeau was the only leader on stage who had to worry about losing significant numbers of voters to each of the other parties. He had to distinguish himself from the NDP in a way that did not cost him his centre-left voters while seeming centre-right enough to attract voters trying to decide between the Liberals and the Conservatives. He had to do this while making the case that, despite being third in the polls, his party still had a reasonable chance at forming the government. The easiest way out of this spot for Trudeau is to find some issue on which he can distinguish himself from the Conservatives and NDP while appealing to voters from centre-left and centre-right. This is why, in a debate occurring when support for separatism in Quebec is low, Trudeau decided to bring up the Clarity Act and national unity. Harper was having none of this, dismissing the discussion of the Clarity Act as not something Quebecers wanted to engage in. Mulcair was willing to engage Trudeau, but may have done well to position in his party in a way that will be appealing to Quebecers. Mulcair emphasized his involvement in the anti-separatist campaigns while also pointing to the problems that exist with federally determined and, ironically, unclear terms for a referendum on separation. Defending the Clarity Act may not be the best way for Trudeau to expand Liberal support in Quebec beyond the most hard-core federalist voters.
The complexity of this debate makes it incredibly difficult to determine a clear winner, especially without a few weeks of polling data to show whether public opinion changed after the debate. It was fairly clear that each leader understood their situation and the appeals made by each have a reasonable chance of resonating with the voters that they courting. Despite his difficult position, Trudeau did well (though his closing statement risks reinforcing the narrative that he lacks substance), but he likely did not do enough to either convince anti-Conservative that he presents the more viable alternative of the two main opposition parties or to raise the importance of an issue that can unite centrist voters in opposition to both the Conservatives and NDP. Harper and Mulcair did their jobs well, both positioning themselves as reasonable centre-right and centre-left parties respectively. Neither needed to win the debate, each just needed to show they were strong options for voters. Finally, Elizabeth May demonstrated the value of her inclusion in the debate and the important role that a party not in the running for government can have in challenging leaders to confront difficult questions and policy concerns. Looking at the debate in the broader context of the election suggests that there is not an easy way to determine a clear winner.