Searching for a Turner Moment: When Debates can Reshape Election Campaigns

This past Monday saw the fourth leaders’ debate of this election, this one focused on foreign policy. The debate was considered by many to be the best of the campaign, with each leader staking out clear and differentiated positiond on the way that Canada interacts with the rest of the world. It is likely to be the last English debate in which leaders of all of the major federal parties will participate. With the debates almost complete, it is tempting to try to determine a debate winner, and whether this winner has managed to improve their parties’ fortunes in the election. When doing this, it is important to keep in mind the kinds of performances that are needed to change the course of elections. Narrow “victories” in debates rarely are enough to make the difference between an election win and a loss. In most debates leaders are too well prepared and arguments are too well rehearsed for one leader to come off as the clear winner in a debate over policy. Often voters end up thinking that the party whose views they already agreed with ended up winning the debate, largely because the leader of that party articulated that arguments that the voter already agrees with. Where debates can matter is in the framing of election issues and conflict between the parties. The interaction between leaders’ gives them a chance to try to frame both their own and each others’ policies as well as the election itself. John Turner’s performances in the 1984 and 1988 elections offer two examples of how this framing can affect election results.

The 1984 debate produced one of the more memorable moments in Canadian electoral history, and one John Turner would probably like to forget. In the debate Mulroney criticized Turner for making patronage appointments at the behest of Pierre Trudeau when Turner became Prime Minister. Turner attempted to claim that he had no choice in making the appointments (at 2:00 minutes in the clip below) and Mulroney capitalized on his statement to making the point that he indeed “had an option” and that Turner’s patronage appointments demonstrated a failure in leadership. The emotional statements by Mulroney helped to underline the problems with the patronage appointments made by the Liberal government and frame the Liberal party as a corrupt government rewarding their friends at the expense of good governance. The exchange helped to raise the importance of governance and frame the Liberals as a corrupt party that needed to be replaced. This contributed to a landslide win for the Mulroney Conservatives in which they took half of the popular vote and almost 75% of the seats in the House of Commons.

Turner faired much better in the English debate in 1988. This time he entered into an exchange with Mulroney over free trade, accusing Mulroney of selling out the country to the United States. Mulroney responded by defending his own commitment to Canada and suggests that free trade is in Canada’s best interest. There was not a clear winner on policy issues in this exchange, but it had a definitive impact on the 1988 election. It helped to make free trade the defining issue of the 1988 election and frame the election as a competition between the pro-free trade Conservatives and anti-free trade Liberals. Even though the Liberals lost the election they benefited from this frame because it made the NDP, who were until the debate threatening to reduce the Liberals to third party status, look irrelevant. Johnston et al. note that the debate led to a drop in NDP support to the benefit of the Liberals as anti-free trade voters moved to the Liberals as the anti-free trade party*.

In a three-way race in which the Liberals and NDP are competing to be the alternative to the Conservatives, the framing of the election and of competition of policy is essential. If either the Liberals or the NDP can make the election about a clear disagreement they have with Harper on which the other opposition party is not strong, they can frame the election as a competition between themselves and the Conservatives. This would help them to look like the party most likely to defeat the Conservatives, and allow them to takes votes from the other opposition party. This election, however, does not lend itself as well to this framing as the 1984 or 1988 elections. Corruption can be used by both the Liberals and the NDP to attack the Conservatives and so does not advantage one party over the other. No single issue has come through in either the debates or the rest of the campaign that either the Liberals or NDP can use to make the election a two-party fight. There is no free-trade issue that either the NDP or Liberals can use to rally all of the voters on one side of the political spectrum to their side. Justin Trudeau came the closest to a Turner free trade moment in the foreign policy debate in his exchange with Harper of the creation of two-tiered citizenship, while Mulcair has been trying to use Trudeau’s support of bill c-51 to cast the NDP as the only party standing up to the Conservatives on civil liberties. Neither issue though has managed to capture voters’ attention in the same way that free trade in 1988, and as a result, neither party has been able to reframe the debate as a competition between either the Liberals and Conservatives alone or the NDP and Conservatives alone**.

To this point the debates in this election have failed to produce a moment or a policy issue that has been able to reframe the election as a two party race between that party and the Conservatives. Barring a major failure by either Mulcair or Trudeau in the French debate later this week, this is unlikely to change. The debates may have shored up Trudeau’s reputation (he has come off better than expected) but they have failed to redefine the campaign in a way that gives either the Liberals or the NDP a clear edge in the competition to win the centre-left of the political spectrum. This is likely to lead to a continued close race between the two parties through the rest of the campaign and to continued concern about vote splitting on the centre-left of the political spectrum.

* Johnston, Richard, Andre Blais, Henry E. Brady, and Jean Crete. (1992) Letting the People Decide: The Dynamics of Canadian Elections. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
** It is tempting to argue that the NDP’s fall to third place shows the Liberals won the debate.  The problem with that argument is that polls run before the debate show the NDP slipping to third place.  The 26/27% that the NDP that polls immediately before the debate were giving the NDP is not different than the number polls immediately after the debate gave the NDP.  As a result, the fall in NDP support being registered in current polls cannot be linked to the foreign policy debate.

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