Why tonight's French debate matters

TVA's is the first of three debates over the next week

Tonight is an important night for the federal election in Quebec. That’s because TVA is hosting the first debate of the campaign, en français bien sûr, between Justin Trudeau, Erin O’Toole, Yves-François Blanchet and Jagmeet Singh.

Debates don’t always matter that much, but the last three election campaigns have turned on them, particularly in Quebec.

French-speaking voters have been spoiled lately, with two debates rather than just the one in English. That’s because a consortium of media outlets put on the official French- and English-language debates, while TVA goes off on its own to produce its own program.

These are called Face-à-Face, which is really fun to say very quickly. These originated in the 2012 Quebec election, when TVA pitted Jean Charest, Pauline Marois and François Legault against each other over three consecutive nights. These were literal head-to-head matches between the leaders, with each night featuring two of the leaders.

This changed over time to a more traditional debate format, particularly once the inclusion of Françoise David from Québec Solidaire made it too unwieldly to have pairs of debaters. But TVA has kept up the name and has put on these debates now for both Quebec and federal election campaigns.

The French-language debates have often been dismissed as the “Quebec debates”, which I think is unfair to French Canadians living in the rest of the country. But the Face-à-Face really is the Quebec debate, as TVA is a Quebec network. It’s one reason they don’t bother including the leader of the Green Party.

And Quebec is an important battleground in this election. The Liberals need it to hold on to their minority, let alone reach a majority, while the Conservatives are making inroads. The NDP would like to win an extra seat or two in the province and, of course, Quebec is the only place that matters to the Bloc Québécois.

So how much of an impact have the French-language debates had in the past?

Quite a bit.

The vote can swing in Quebec after a debate

To get an idea of how past debates have impacted support in Quebec, I’ve gone back over the last three federal election campaigns. I’ve compared polls conducted in Quebec the week prior to a debate to those conducted by the same pollsters in the week after a debate.

For the 2015 and 2019 elections, in which both TVA and consortium debates were held, I’ve also compared Quebec polls conducted in the week before the first of these two to those conducted by the same pollsters in the week after the last one.

I’m comparing pollster-to-pollster to take any house effects out of the equation. For that reason, the combined impact of the two debates in 2015 and 2019 do not always add up to the sum of the impacts of the individual debates.

While we can’t attribute every movement in the polls to the debates themselves, it’s probably no coincidence that the debates have all taken place at a time of significant movement in public opinion in Quebec.

In 2011, the New Democrats jumped six points before and after the French-language consortium debate. Both the 2015 and 2019 debates moved the polls by 10 points for a party, against the NDP in 2015 and toward the Bloc in 2019.

Jack Layton’s breakthrough in 2011 is often attributed to his appearance on Radio-Canada’s Tout le monde en parle, but the debate helped, too. The NDP was only at 17% in Quebec in the polls going into the debate, trailing in fourth behind the Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc, which led with 34% support.

The NDP picked up six points in the week after the debate, with the Liberals and Conservatives each dropping two points and the Bloc tumbling three. Not even repeated appeals to Madame Paillé could save them.

Going into the 2015 debates, the New Democrats were ahead in the polls. Tom Mulcair’s party had 39% support in Quebec, with the Liberals 16 points back and the other parties even further in behind.

But the consortium debate cost Mulcair five points, evenly split between the Bloc and the Conservatives, even if it wasn’t always possible to know what anyone was saying.

The TVA debate cost Mulcair another five points, this time with the Liberals taking advantage.

When the dust was settled, the NDP had fallen neck-and-neck with the Liberals in the province. By the time the votes were counted, the Liberals would be well ahead and win 40 seats in Quebec.

Of course, the best moment of the 2015 debates was when Trudeau called Gilles Duceppe “mon amour”. It wasn’t quite up there with “you had a choice”, but it is far more enjoyable.

In 2019, the Liberals had about 35% support in Quebec going into the first of the two French-language debates, followed by the Bloc and Conservatives at about 20% apiece and the NDP at about 10%.

The debates didn’t cost Trudeau too much, dropping three points overall, but it was a big moment for Blanchet and the Bloc. From 20% and maybe a dozen seats, Blanchet catapulted the Bloc to over 30% and 32 seats. The Bloc was back, and this is one case where we know the debates were consequential. Polls overwhelmingly gave Blanchet as the winner, even among supporters of other parties.

Andrew Scheer, by comparison, saw his tires punctured in the two debates and the Conservatives’ hopes of a breakthrough in Quebec were dashed.

Radio-Canada has some good resumes of the TVA and consortium debates, but they didn’t have many funny moments. The 2019 campaign was kind of a drag.

How the debates could shift things this time

So, what’s the potential impact on the 2021 campaign?

Well, let’s take how the polls moved in each of the last three campaigns and apply them to where the polls are today in Quebec.

As of the September 1 update of the Poll Tracker, the Liberals are projected to win 35 seats with 33% of the vote, with the Bloc capturing 27 seats with 27% of the vote. The Conservatives stand at 20% and 13 seats, with the NDP at 13% and three seats. Here’s how the same shifts in support from past debates would impact those seat numbers:

Because the New Democrats are so far behind in this campaign, the same kind of movement as in 2011 and 2015, when the NDP was the big mover, doesn’t shift the seat projections as much.

A post-debate bump for the NDP like in 2011 would put the party back on the map with around eight seats, coming primarily from the Bloc Québécois. But it wouldn’t change the Liberal or Conservative standings much.

If support for the NDP collapses like in 2015, with the Liberals and Bloc benefiting, the only real impact would be to nudge up the Liberal and Bloc seat totals by a little bit. That would make it easier for the Liberals to win at least a plurality nationwide.

A move like in 2019, however, could be impactful. That’s because the race in Quebec is between the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, and the 2019 debate was the only one that moved their numbers in a significantly different direction.

From a seven-point lead for the Liberals, this scenario gives the Bloc a lead of six points and boosts them to 41 seats, dropping the Liberals to 25 and the Conservatives to nine, ruining both of their hopes for a majority government (and probably robbing the Liberals of a plurality).

So, the stakes are high tonight. Singh has the least amount of pressure since only one or two seats might be riding on his performance, but there is a lot riding on the outcome for the other three leaders.

O’Toole needs to keep his party’s support in Quebec, which has been rising. It puts a few extra seats within his grasp, but perhaps more importantly it helps his national numbers. If his support in Quebec collapses, the Conservatives will fall behind the Liberals nationally. That will change the dynamic of this campaign, much as Scheer’s failure in the French debates took him out of the running to be prime minister (and exposed him on issues that reverberated elsewhere).

The stakes are highest for Trudeau and Blanchet. The Bloc leader needs to give his campaign a bit of a boost, as he is on track to lose seats. Trudeau is in need of some momentum even more, as his chances of holding on to power are increasingly looking dependent on Quebec. If he stumbles, he might fall right out of the prime minister’s office.