Debates and the Local Candidate


I’ve been thinking a lot about debates lately. On August 6 from 8 – 10pm ET, federal party leaders will get their first kick at the can in the Maclean’s Debate, airing on Rogers stations and CPAC, where I’ll be providing commentary from ‘The Left’.

Whether or not Canadians abandon their BBQs to tune in mid-summer, the media will be watching. Their pick of the winners, zingers and massive fails, could shape commentary and coverage for weeks.

This got me thinking about the role and significance of local riding debates during electoral campaigns. I’ve been a candidate and I’ve worked with many candidates preparing for debates. There’s almost always a tension between the candidates’ desire to spend time preparing, and the campaign’s interest in getting the candidate back on the doorstep.

Fear not. There’s a solution: Think Ahead and Use the Doorstep.

Think ahead

While candidates need to be spending every waking hour from here to Election Day knocking on doors, now’s also the time to put aside a few minutes to prepare a stump speech and think about how to deal with tough questions in a debate format. Don’t wait for September (when presumably most debates will take place) to roll around.

Let’s be clear: even party leaders don’t sail into a studio, sidle up to the podium and naturally debate each other brilliantly, with no preparation at all. They have whole teams – experienced staff and special advisors – to work with them. They rehearse for weeks…even months. They will play-out various scenarios. And ideally, they will go into the debate with a clear objective and some snappy comebacks.

Local campaigns don’t have this luxury. A local candidate needs to focus on reaching as many voters as possible, period. And a local campaign is not going to want to pull staff and volunteers off the phones and the doorsteps to spend hours or days preparing a candidate for debates. Not going to happen.

Campaign managers I’ve known and interviewed put debates WAY down their list of priorities. They argue that debates generally – at a local level — aren’t going to make or break a campaign. While those voters at a local debate may constitute the single largest assembled group of voters a candidate will encounter, they generally already have their minds made up. On the other hand, in the era of social media potential reach for ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of local debate performance is multiplied. As one former campaign manager summed it up: “it matters if they do exceptionally badly, but it’s hard for them to make big gains at a debate.”

The key for a candidate and their campaign, then, is to be realistic about what you can achieve in preparation for a debate and try not to take up too much time would otherwise be spent on the doorsteps.

So use the doorstep.

See every doorstep as rehearsal for getting your message out in the most effective and efficient way possible. Consider every tough question as an opportunity to practice your response to those same questions in a debate. Practice pivoting back to your key messages. Bring a buddy and ask for feedback.

The result: happy, prepared candidate. Happy campaign.

Here are more of my top tips for Debate Preparation (and remember to do this now… Don’t wait for debate night!)

  • Know your key messages – often a few key messages or points that your central party has provided, but also a line or two that relate to a locally specific issue.
  • Jot them down on a cue card to bring to the debate.
  • Consider the candidate stump speech – Who am I and why should you vote for me? The one minute intro a candidate gives at the doorstep is pretty much always the right thing to say at any community event.
  • Practice the ‘Pivot’ – candidates won’t know the answer to every question. Period. Practice pivoting or redirecting back to your key messages.
  • Consider the doorstep your best ‘Debate Coach’ – good answers to tough questions at the doorstep are good answers to tough questions in a debate. Keep responses concise and get comfortable with not knowing all the answers to everything.
  • Bring a buddy – candidates should bring a buddy or ‘handler’ to canvass with them. Ask for feedback about how messages are being delivered (Clear? Concise?).
  • Think about what kind of information candidates will want in front of them. I think the cue card (above) rules! But sometimes central campaigns provide tabbed binders with information on platform and policy, and many candidates will lug these or other documents up to the podium. Think about how it will look and feel to be flipping through paper while a constituent waits for an answer to their question. Tick tock. Take time now to familiarize yourself with issues and remember that you don’t need to know everything. Then consider whether you really need that binder…

At the debate, candidates should:

  • Know the format – Know how much time they have for intro, closing and what the format will be, in advance. Campaign managers (or their designate) should be negotiating the number of debates that will take place, audience expectations, signage, format, etc., in advance. This also helps keep the number of debates down.
  • Know who their audience is – a local residents’ association, a community group? Who is hosting the event? This will help you prepare for likely questions.
  • Thank the moderator and organizers — it takes a lot of effort to pull off an event like this, and they deserve credit. Thank the volunteers and everyone who came out to the event.
  • Don’t ever, EVER take your electronic device to the podium…. I know you think you’ll remember to turn off your ringer, but you won’t. And don’t even think for a second that it’s okay for someone to text a candidate answers to difficult questions. Yes, I’ve seen it happen. No, it didn’t look good. It’s disrespectful and unnecessary. DROP THE DEVICE.
  • Take a piece of paper and a pencil with you to mark down any thoughts you have on responses or to note questions.
  • Dress professionally and with respect for your audience.
  • Thank everyone for their questions.

In my opinion, the key to coming across well in a debate is authenticity. I tell candidates to speak from what they believe and know. If you aren’t an energy expert, don’t expect you can become one overnight.

Be respectful of your fellow candidates, while pointing out the inadequacies of their platform or record. For example, instead of criticizing an incumbent MP for their lacklustre attendance record in Parliament, talk about how you are going to improve the way your riding is represented, including ‘showing up for work’.

Debates are a part of political life and our democracy. See every conversation and doorstep as an opportunity to rehearse. And have fun!

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