May 08, 2018

Post CityVote Debate Analysis

Authored by:

Joanne Dobson

Joanne Dobson

Katlyn Harrison

Katlyn Harrison

Robin MacLachlan

Robin MacLachlan

On Monday, Ontario’s party leaders squared off in the first of three leadership debates to be held throughout the campaign period. The team at Summa Strategies watched the debate (we are a bunch of #onpoli nerds, after all) and had some key takeaways from each of the Leader’s performances. 

Robin MacLachlan: Horwath solidifies position as a real contender for Premier

"While these two argue, our hydro bills are going through the roof."

Just as fresh Abacus Data numbers suggest Andrea Horwath is gaining momentum in a tightening race, her performance in last night's debate solidified her position as a contender for Premier.

Horwath's strategy was clearly to remain positive - sometimes smiling a bit too much - while taking every opportunity to press front running Doug Ford on how he plans to cut 4% from government spending. The NDP leader demanded to know what nurses, teachers or doctors Ford planned to lay off. 

If her objective was to provide an alternative to voters fed up with the Liberals but anxious about the idea of Premier Doug Ford, she did just that. Those tuning in who may feel they don't know Horwath, saw her competently touting an alternative vision for change, while reminding voters they don't have to choose between bad and worse. Her closing remarks asked voters to imagine a province where folks can afford dental care, have public access to medicines their doctors prescribe, and childcare for those who need it.

At several points in the debate while Wynne and Ford bickered, Horwath tried to rise above, one time proclaiming: "While these two argue, our hydro bills are going through the roof.” She will need more moments like that to break through the more sensational coverage that dominates this race. 

Horwath did manage to refocus several of Ford and Wynne’s responses into a pitch for the NDP’s progressive policy agenda. If she can keep doing that, she may just turn this into a Ford vs Horwath contest.

Joanne Dobson: In the biggest uphill battle, Wynne capably defends record and outlines risk of change

"Wynne was ready to defend decisions that the Liberals have taken and had proof points that were backed by actual research."

Let’s be clear, it’s always difficult to defend a record against two leaders who have never led a province as she has, on borrowed time. 

Wynne was ready to defend decisions that the Liberals have taken and had proof points that were backed by actual research numbers, qualitative and quantitative evidence and many anecdotal stories from her time consulting and engaging with voters. That seemed to be the strategy last night, to soften the leaders image and have her through these stories make connections with elements of society that have lost faith in the Liberals over the years.

The Liberals understand that their leader is quite unpopular with the electorate so while these are leaders debates, there is an opportunity for her to mention her team, new and old, so voters can take some comfort that they could re-elect a somewhat experienced government - who is made up of more that their leader. 

The difficulty that the Liberal leader did have was defending claims of corruption and misspending within the party and a strategy to debunk some of these claims - such as a clear commitment to transparency- will need to be firmed up as much as possible before the next debate.

The other strategy was to play a consistent beat on the worrying heartstrings of citizens who are at risk and would be at further risk with further cuts-cuts-cuts in social programs and jobs under Ford Nation. Wynne didn’t make any additional policy announcements, but focused on what they have been doing, and what programs would be implemented through the budget recently announced. She also pointed often to the strong record of the province currently vis a vis other provinces and our neighbors to the North to defend government spending and program creation as of late.

Kate Harrison: Ford sticks to the script in an effort to not arm his opponents with more ammo

"Ford had one job in the first debate: to be disciplined and reasonable in the face of attacks."

Doug Ford’s performance in his first debate as a major political party leader is best described as purposeful.

It’s been over a decade since Ontario PCs have been represented by a leader who’s backyard is the 416. Comfort with Toronto and GTA issues should have put PC Leader Doug Ford at ease during this first city-focused debate, which touched on issues including transit, crime and housing affordability.

While Ford eased into the debate midway, it was a bit of a slow start. His signature plain-spoken manner was stilted at times, which can be partially pinned on what’s been universally called an awkward debate format.

If viewers were expecting fire in the belly from Ford, they probably walked away disappointed last night. But much of the brash reputation that precedes Ford is over-estimated and imagined; even during recent leadership debates against fellow PC rivals, Ford delivered points calmly, without the bravado that is more accurately attributed to his late brother.

Ford had one job in the first debate: to be disciplined and reasonable in the face of attacks from Wynne and Horwath. He did that. He didn’t give his opponents any obvious material to generate attack ads, and though his answers weren’t specific, they were certainly on message.

While reconciling his reputation as a plain-spoken politician and being viewed by others an aggressor is a likely challenge for the PC leader, this partisan hopes to see a little more signature passion from Ford in Round 2.

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