Today I’m peeling back the curtain on a classic election campaign tradition, one that is remarkably useless at the strategic level.
I’m talking about the “all-candidates debate”, which is always hosted during the writ period, and almost always by extremely, even overtly, partisan organizations.
This year’s culprit is ‘Own Your Saskatchewan’, a sub-campaign of the ultra leftwing, and increasingly irrelevant, Saskatchewan Federation of Labor.
Own Your Saskatchewan is absolutely, positively, 100% an anti-Sask Party crusade. In addition to the fact that its a SFL initiative, one look at their website makes that abundantly clear.
So for the past few days, this group, in conjunction with groups like CUPE, has been hosting a number of “all-candidates” (yes, those are air-quotes) debates across Saskatchewan on the topic of the evils of privatization.
Except guess what – not one Sask Party candidate has shown up.
In no world are these types of debates – and they are absolutely a leftwing special – about debating. They’re orchestrated to generate a headline, which they always do:
‘Candidates missing from CUPE election forum’ – Battlefords News-Optimist
‘Sask. Party declines invitation’ – Prince Albert Herald
The implication, of course, is that the candidates who didn’t appear must be scared, or hiding something, even though 99 per cent of the time that really couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Let me explain why, regardless of who is organizing, or what the topic is, these debates are such a waste of time for candidates, and really, for voters.
First, the format.
There are two ridings in Prince Albert, which we’ll use as an example, meaning only fifty per cent of the audience is likely to consist of your voters. On a good day, these debates bring out thirty people, meaning if you’re a candidate, you’re spending at least two hours out of your schedule to stump for fifteen votes. At an event as partisan (which it totally is) as the Own It debate, at least half or more of the audience will already be decided, so now you’re down to seven and a half (fine, eight) potential votes. Even if you managed to nail down all eight votes, the two hours you just burnt could have been spent door-knocking, which is an infinitely better use of your time.
Now consider how futile this becomes in a centre like Saskatoon or Regina, where your debate audience may be slightly larger, but you’re dividing it by ten or more ridings. The time spent compared to the potential votes gained just does not make sense.
Second, they’re a trap.
My Prince Albert analogy is actually fairly generous with the assumption that only half of the audience would be decided. Often these events, especially when they’re organized around a flashpoint issue like privatization, are stacked with the supporters of one candidate.
Think of it like Hillary Clinton walking on stage during a thinly-veiled Trump rally. There’s not one vote to be earned, and plenty of ways to be tripped up – and of course, someone will be recording.
Finally, if you’re a voter, you’ve figured out by now that all-candidates debates are rarely about you. They’re about one side making the other look bad, whether they show up or not, with a side of hoping to bag a gotcha moment. In fact, if all candidates did actually show up and have a healthy, respectful debate, organizers would probably be really disappointed.
When I manage a campaign, my rule is one debate per writ, which must be riding-specific, credibly organized, well-advertised, and at least maintain a pretense of non-partisanship. I’ll give you two guesses on how often that happens – but you should only need one. Let’s say it’s about as likely as Hillary Clinton walking on stage during a Trump rally.