The potential impact of tonight's English debate

English-language debates have moved the dial in past elections, and the dial could use some moving just about now

Did you enjoy the second French-language leaders debate last night? What a spectacle! When the one guy hit the other guy with the baguette and…

Okay, to be honest I actually wrote this article before I watched the French-language consortium debate on Wednesday night. But I assure you that I watched it. I probably tweeted about it last night. Hello, future Éric! Oh, the adventures you’ve had.


It’ll take a little while for the full impact of the two French-language debates to be seen in the polls. The early results from the post-TVA debate polling showed little significant impact and, if the 2019 election is any indication, Wednesday’s debate might turn out to have been more important anyway. The 2019 consortium debate in French had an audience of 2.6 million in Quebec, compared to 1.25 million for TVA’s Face-à-Face held that year. This year’s TVA iteration did a little better, at 1.27 million.

But for the rest of the country — and for francophones who either speak English or are willing to suffer through simultaneous translation of a cacophonous debate — the single English-language debate is the main event. It certainly was in 2019, when nearly 10 million Canadians tuned in.

It turned out to be an important moment for Jagmeet Singh and the NDP. He was pegged as the winner in post-debate polls, and from that moment support for the New Democrats rose from not-great to better.

Are English-language debates as impactful as their Gallic counterparts? Not really, at least not recently. Last week, I broke down how past French debates moved the polls in Quebec over the last three elections. In two of those elections, one party experienced either a drop (NDP in 2015) or a surge (Bloc in 2019) of 10 percentage points, completely changing the election’s dynamics.

While the shifts following English-language debates have not been as dramatic, they have nevertheless been significant enough to matter. And with the polls starting to stabilize, a debate is just the thing to get them unstuck.

How past English debates moved the polls

As with my analysis of the impact of the French debates, I’ve gone back over the last three elections to compare pre- and post-debate polls conducted by the same pollsters. For the 2015 election, in which three English debates took place, I’ve only focused on the debates organized by The Globe and Mail (Sept. 17) and the Munk Debates (Sept. 28), as there were too few polls conducted around the time of the Maclean’s debate that kicked-off the campaign.

For 2019, I’ve ignored the pre-campaign debate that Justin Trudeau did not attend.

Let’s get to it:

Past debates have coincided with shifts of as much as three, four or six percentage points nationally — more than enough to change the momentum of any election campaign.

Start with 2011. Going into that debate, the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff were about 10 points back of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, with the NDP under Jack Layton at its usual 17% or 18%.

It was, at first glance, a standard Liberal-Conservative fight. But Layton was able to turn the tables on Ignatieff, starting some forward momentum in the polls that would eventually propel the NDP ahead of the Liberals in English Canada, as well as in Quebec.

Here’s perhaps Layton’s most devastating line on Ignatieff:

The initial impact on the polls was modest (and largely limited to Quebec). But the NDP was nevertheless standing three points higher a week after the debate than before it, and Layton was able to use the following three weeks to his advantage.

Fast-forward to 2015, when Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were trailing in third place after leading in the polls for nearly two years after Trudeau had become leader in 2013. Famously showing up “with his pants on” at the first debate, Trudeau did well enough that by the time of the Globe and Munk debates, the party was running even with the NDP, now under Tom Mulcair, and the Conservatives in a tight three way race.

Both debates hurt the NDP, and by the end of them it was Trudeau that had turned the tables on the NDP leader and grasped role of the standard-bearer of progressives looking to oust the Harper government.

The net impact of the two debates was a gain of three points for the Liberals, a bump of two for the Conservatives and a drop of six for the NDP as the New Democrats fell out of contention and back into third-party status.

The NDP was still in that spot — if only just — by the time of the 2019 debate. The NDP was averaging just 14% in the polls ahead of the English-language consortium debate, as the Liberals and Conservatives were both hovering around 34%.

But Singh made his mark early on in an exchange with Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party.

Singh continued to be engaged and personable throughout, and the NDP’s support took off from its low base. The NDP picked up four points, with the Liberals dropping three and the Conservatives dropping two — and both of them dropping out of majority government contention.

What the seat implications could be this time

A lot of the action as a result of the English-language debates has been among the NDP-Liberal switchers who either backed the perceived best horse to defeat Harper in 2011 and 2015 or gave up on Trudeau in 2019.

The dynamic is different this time, in that it’s not clear there is as much fear of a Conservative government among these voters, either because Erin O’Toole has tried to soften his party’s image or because the likelihood of a Conservative majority is low. At the same time, the NDP is near its usual ceiling and the Liberals near their usual floor when they are in their current roles. The Trudeau Liberals are the incumbent government, after all, not a twice-defeated opposition party led by an unpopular leader as in 2011.

Nevertheless, if we see the same sort of impacts as in past debates, the outcome of this election could be shifted dramatically.

Using yesterday’s seat projection from the CBC Poll Tracker, the Liberals stand at 140 seats against 133 for the Conservatives, 38 for the NDP and 26 for the Bloc Québécois (along with one Green).

Surges for the NDP like in 2011 or 2019, however, would pull both the Liberals and the Conservatives further away from majority territory. The Liberals would drop to 127 to 129 seats, with the Conservatives winning only 126 to 129. The NDP would soar to over 50 seats, representing its second-best result after the 2011 breakthrough.

This shows how an NDP bump from the debates is not necessarily good news for the Conservatives. It can take a bite out of them as well. If they aren’t already in the high-30s, their vote efficiency isn’t good enough that an NDP in the mid-to-low 20s doesn’t cost them some seats.

A result like 2015, however, in which both the Liberals and Conservatives got a bump, would push the NDP down to 21 seats. The Liberals would rise to 155 seats and the Conservatives to 138. Here, we see how a net one-point gain for the Liberals coupled with an NDP drop boosts Liberal fortunes significantly. The Liberals jump three points and 15 seats. The Conservative jump two points and just five.

What if the Conservatives make a big breakthrough? Well, there’s a first time for everything. What is revealing about this exercise is just how stable the Conservative vote is. They really haven’t been the kind of party that benefits from huge swings in the vote during election campaigns, at least not since 2005-06. For them, turnout is disproportionately more important than persuasion can be for the Liberals and NDP. O’Toole needs to give his supporters a reason to go out and vote Conservative, rather than stay home or cast a ballot for the PPC.

It’s a cliché to say it, but these debates could matter a lot. When a race is close, every point or two can make a real difference. And you don’t need a “knock-out punch” to gain a point or two.