2021 Federal Election Debates: The Stakes are Very High

Ian Anderson, Chair, Temple Scott Associates

Prime Minister Trudeau called the September 20 Federal Election with the intention of achieving a majority government. The past four weeks, however, have demonstrated what political professionals know as immutable law: Campaigns matter.  We tend to forget that former Prime Ministers Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney and, yes, Justin Trudeau all entered their first election campaigns not as front-runners but as the expected loser.  They ran smarter, more determined and more focused campaigns while their opponents stumbled – and each came away with majority victories.

For this current campaign – unwanted by a majority of Canadians – the deck was stacked from the start against Erin O’Toole, the new Conservative leader. The shortest possible campaign period – giving O’Toole scant time to introduce himself to voters – and half of that in the sleepy summer days before Labour Day. And only one debate in English, with two in French that play to the Prime Minister’s language skills and the presumed two-way race in Quebec.

Since the second week of the campaign, however, O’Toole has run consistently ahead in national polling. The reasons for his party’s ascendancy are several, but clearly his political skills and his team were under-estimated by the Liberals, whose fuzzy pre-Labour Day campaign was something of a mystery for many.   This week O’Toole faces the two most important nights of his campaign, Wednesday and Thursday, when he gets onto the national debate stage with the Prime Minister, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet, and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul.

Debates matter, too. The first debate in French last week attracted an audience of close to one million voters, mainly in Quebec, and seemed to stabilize the Liberal vote.  It also eliminated skeptics who challenged O’Toole’s French language capability. This week’s English language debate will have a projected audience of over three million across the country.  These are, by far, the largest audiences the leaders will address over the 35-day campaign and, equally important, the perception of who won will ripple beyond debate viewers into the broader electorate.

The French language debate airs tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern while the English language debate airs on Thursday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

As the parties plan their debate strategies it is obvious that only the Liberals or Conservatives will lead the country after September 20.   That said, each leader’s performance in these debates can impact the final results because an array of three-way and four-way splits in strategically important ridings across the country will almost certainly determine the final outcome.

With just 12 days to go, this election now seems to be more about a choice on leadership than on core policy. Traditional wedge issues have been largely removed by O’Toole – which in itself says something important about his control of his traditionally diverse party.

That is why each Leader’s performance in these debates can be pivotal.  You can expect to see the Conservative leader facing a determined and fully focused Prime Minister who knows his government’s survival requires him to break through O’Toole’s genial personality and create doubt about his policies and intentions. Trudeau can be expected to be on the attack right from the start, looking strong and determined by trying to put O’Toole on the defensive. Look for the gun control issue to be raised early and often as a means to portray the Tories as outside mainstream values.

The Prime Minister, who tends to do well in these formats, must also stop the bleed to the NDP, which is running at a consistent 18 to 20% in national polling, ahead of its 2019 election result – support taken mainly from the Liberals.  The Prime Minister will make it clear to his national audience that the only party for progressives in 2021 is the Liberals, and any vote for the NDP and its charismatic leader is a de facto vote for the Conservatives.

For his part, O’Toole has a single goal – to look and act like a future Prime Minister from the open to the close of both debates.  O’Toole is comfortable in a verbal brawl, as he has shown in his exchanges with the Prime Minister in the House.  His priorities must be to parry attacks and strengthen his connection with large blocks of voters he wants to bring back to the Conservative fold – the independents, suburban Ontario voters concerned with issues of family and pocketbook and Quebecers in small-c conservative ridings the Tories have held in the recent past.  If he appears rattled by the Prime Minister, the election dynamic almost certainly will change.

Jagmeet Singh will need to protect his relevance – a relevance the Prime Minister needs to undercut. If he holds or builds on the NDP’s current share of the national vote, he will increase his seat count significantly while also hurting the Liberals and Greens.  Singh needs O’Toole to continue to be seen as a safe choice for moderate voters – which is the Prime Minister’s worst-case scenario.  Singh is currently positioned to play a major role in a minority Parliament post-election and a strong debate performance could propel him into the all important third place (ahead of the Bloc) which can strategically be very advantageous in the House.

Yves-François Blanchet’s primary target is the Prime Minister but you also can expect him to aggressively link O’Toole to social conservativism, climate change inaction and gun law changes.  The Bloc holds ridings in eastern Quebec that become vulnerable if O’Toole’s momentum increases. At the same time, Blanchet knows the Bloc’s only power is with a minority government.  A highly effective communicator, he has no interest in a Liberal or Conservative majority, and he will remind Quebecers that a vote for the Bloc will be a vote for Quebec-first policies.

Annamie Paul of the Greens has her only opportunity of the entire campaign to show that her party is relevant. Internal fighting and a 100% focus on her riding of Toronto Centre has made her a non-player in this campaign. The September 9 English debate is likely her only chance to maintain at least one seat in the House of Commons. 

With just 10 days of campaigning following the debates, there will be little or no time to correct debate mistakes.  The advance polls open the day after the debates. The Prime Minister must reassert himself, create serious doubt about O’Toole, and remind progressives, swing voters and Quebecers why they voted for him in 2015 and 2019.  O’Toole must look and sound like a Prime Minister while deflecting attacks from Trudeau, and reconnect his party with voters they lost in those past two Federal Elections.  One of those two scenarios will likely decide who emerges from the debates as the odds-on favorite to be Prime Minister of Canada after September 20.

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