Monday, November 19, 2012

Campaign Update: First Debate

Video Feed: LINK

Provided at the top of the post is the video link for those interested in viewing the debate, or watching it again, and it is what I used to form my opinions for this post. I'll just know, however, that there seems to be some cut footage from the video; as the candidates opening statements are missing and the video seems to start halfway through the first question on climate change.

While I wish I could critique the opening statements, it seems I'll be unable to do so (unless another video of the debate in its entirety is put up).

Now, I've given some thought at to what this post should be about. It could be a simple recapping of what was said during the debate, or it could just be my general impression from it. After careful reflection, I think it should be the latter. However, I will give some brief overviews regarding the content of the debate.

In many ways, this was less of a debate and more of a questions & answer session. I say this, because, for the most part the candidates avoided directly interacting with each other and focused more answering the questions that were presented by the moderator. This format isn't a bad thing, but I do imagine we're going to need at least one type of "adversarial" debate to highlight the key differences between the four candidates.

The debate consisted of seven questions, with follow up questions provided to each candidate after answering the primary question. The questions were, in broad strokes: Climate Change, Addressing Poverty, Engaging Youth, Party Direction, Generating Revenue, Women in Politics, and Child Care. For the most part, each of these questions have been answered by the candidates through various releases prior to the debate, and as such, I don't think we saw anyone really outside of their comfort zone during the debate.

For the bulk of the debate, it was a simple verbal restating of policies already brought forward and talked about by the campaigns. There was also, as noted by Erin Weir in his closing statement, a lot of agreement between the candidates on stage.

Which brings me to the three things I want to discuss specifically. I kept a specific note on three key points during the debate: Firstly, which candidate was being mentioned/referenced either positively or negatively the most by the other candidates? Secondly, which candidate 'brought the funny' to the podium? Thirdly, which candidate received the most 'applause breaks'?

The last two, I think, are important because its a good indication of how the candidate is playing in the room. If they're saying things that evoke laughter, or applause, it's an indicator of an emotional attachment in the room. It shows that people are engaged, listening, and feel connected to what the candidate is saying. As such, while it might not be scientific, I think it is at least an indicator of who is playing best in the room.

So, let's start with the first point: Which candidate was mentioned the most, either positively or negatively, by the other candidates?

The criteria I used to measure this is somewhat specific. I do not include passing reference (something like "Continuing on what Candidate X said...") but rather look for dynamic engagement ("Unlike Candidate X's plan;" or "I think Candidate X is right to say"). Also, we don't include doubles. For example, Erin's plan to issue tax receipts for the Bessie Ellis Fund is mentioned a few times by Trent; but we would only count it once, as opposed to twice, as it is the same issue being discussed.

By my count, Cam Broten was the candidate most of the others spent time making reference to in terms of agreeing to statements he had made and policy issues that came up during the debate.It's also worth noting that Cam, along with Erin Weir, were the only two candidates to be mentioned negatively by another during the debate.

Cam called out Erin's approach to the small business tax  as creating a tax increase of 600%; while Erin called out Cam's commitment to establishing a committee and undertaking a study of increasing gender parity in politics, as opposed to taking stronger action. It was the only real headbutting moment of the debate, however, it was also an incredibly short lived moment as well.

So, we'll make a final analysis about the first point once we've put the other two points with it. So, let's move onto the next topic of: Which candidate "brought the funny"?

As I've mentioned before, personality is a big part of politics right now in Saskatchewan; especially when you're facing a personable opponent. As such, being able to make a room laugh isn't necessarily a bad trait for a leader to have. Laughter puts us all at ease, and we all tend to remember a good laugh and what brought us to it for at least a few days. Therefore, I thought it was at least a tad important to focus on which candidate seemed to best bring that across.

In terms of laugh out loud moments, that honor goes to Ryan Meili. Ryan was quick to start, garnering the first laugh of the night with his 'wind-win' joke with regards to sustainable energy. By the end of the debate, Ryan had caused the most laughter overall, though every candidate managed to at least provoke some laughter throughout the course of the evening.

Also, since it fits well here, I'll also commend Ryan for the use of the term 'trolling'; as an internet savvy youngster, I was surprised to not only hear a politician use the word but use it correctly.

That brings us to applause breaks. This is a much harder category to declare a winner in, if only because there's a three-way tie for who garnered the most audience applause. The criteria for this stems from random applause, such as after presenting a point, and does not include "mandatory applause", as you would get at the end of the closing statement.

If we want to score it by who garnered the first round of random applause, then you'd give it to Trent Wotherspoon; who was met with applause while talking about labour laws and ensuring the growth of the middle class.

So, let's look at all of these things together and see what they mean.

Based on these three points, and the fact that the debate was apparently quite well attended, I think the debate process is off to a good start. With regards to the "bringing the funny" and the applause break sections, there is a lot of room for growth for most of the candidates. Cam and Trent, perhaps used to taking a more serious approach to debate due to the rules of the Legislature, were the least likely to include a joke or other 'icebreaker' approaches during their answers.

While they did present their personal histories very well, and that is an effective way of helping to connect with the audience, I think there is always room for a good dose of humour. As I mentioned above, a good belly laugh often leaves a lasting memory; and there's no harm in finding a way to create that memory.

As for the applause; well, I don't think the campaigns need to focus on the barnburner speeches that will have the audience leaping to their feet every other sentence, but again, its at least a good tool at showing that people are engaged with what the candidate is saying. If anything, the campaigns should be taking note to see what topics and issues (and their solutions or policies) are generating this kind of interest and take steps to make sure that they present those issues well during the course of the campaign.

Now the big one. Oscar Wilde said the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about; and in many respects, that is true in a leadership race. Ryan talked about framing the debate of the next election, and in many ways, that's what the candidates need to be focusing on right now. Getting a rival candidate to agree to a policy you've put forward is a boon, and getting them to continually mention it is even better.

Erin has done the best on that front, as Trent mentioned the Bessie Ellis Fund numerous times during the debate (not to mention the references to Erin being the first to call for an end to corporate and union donations to political parties), and its a good way of staying at the forefront even when someone else is speaking.

As such, the campaigns should be focused on ensuring that when their candidate isn't talking, at the very least some of their ideas are still being mentioned. This is going to get harder as more and more policies are put forward, and being the first with the grand idea is the only way to guarantee success on this front. However, at the same time, this is a double edged sword.

While it is good to be talked about, there's also the risk of being talked about negatively. As we saw with the brief exchange between Cam and Erin, there is going to be some friction between the candidates and some policies are just not going to mix well. Which is why there is a fine line between calling attention to something and being the sole contrarian in the room.

Disagree if need be, and believe me we will need some disagreement before the race is through, but always make sure that it isn't disagreement for the sake of disagreement.

Now, comes the complicated part. I'm thinking a lot about the closing statements, and whether or not a 'winner' can be crowned from the first debate. Personally, I don't think it's my place to determine that latter question; although I do feel that there was no 'knockout punch' that effectively propelled any one candidate over any of the others...

As for the closing statements; I fear I might be a little more harsh than previously on this blog. I say that because while the statements had their high points, they also had their low ones, and I think we should be able to discuss them freely.

As such, I will be posting closing statements reflections separately from this blog post and personalized by each candidate. I just hope that none of my 'objections' or thoughts will be construed as a bias, since as I've stated before, I am quite undecided in this race and want to remain objective while blogging about it. So, we'll start posting those reflections soon, likely starting tonight and should have them wrapped up before the next debate.



Malcolm+ said...

One thing I think you've missed is the way all four candidates have, to some degree or another, attempted to co-op the "healthy society" rhetoric of Ryan Meili, including his emphasis on the social determinants of health. I don't recall ever hearing four politicians in a room all reference social determinants of health using the specific term. That they are all doing so now suggests to me that Ryan Meili has quite effectively shaped the debate even if none of his opponents are crediting him.

Malcolm+ said...

that should have been co-opt

Scott said...

I'm trying to give some thought to your comments; as I'm not sure I remember any of the candidates, other than Ryan, actually using the phrase 'healthy society'.

I can recall them talking in generalities about indexing minimum wage, and Trent specifically mentioning the Canadian Index of Well Being; of course, I could certainly have missed the direct utterance of the phrase.

As for whether it's been co-opted from the Meili Campaign...I'm not entirely sure. Cam Broten was the first in the race, and his policies pointed to a lot of these issues from day one.

That isn't to say I think Ryan is ripping off Cam's platform; rather, I think this is an area that is a cornerstone of social democracy in the modern era, and as such, we're going to see a lot of overlap from the four candidates during the campaign.

But overlap doesn't suggest that the train of thought can be traced back to a single point of origin; new democrats have talked about equality and 'healthy' society for decades. I'm sure the thought didn't start with Tommy Douglas, but in terms of actual health, we've been talking about preventative medicare since the creation of the system.

Ryan is a great champion for the cause, but I don't think the origin of the discussion rests completely with him.