Election Debates: how many is too many?

Expert explains the 'redundancy' of the 2014 mayoral debates

How many debates do you need to win an election? For the Toronto mayoral candidates it seems that the answer is the more, the merrier.

We’re nearing the mayoral race finish line with the Oct. 27 elections just around the corner and this year’s candidates have upped their dose of scheduled bickering matches. Though debates are essential to having democratic elections, too many of them can become annoying.

“There are a lot of them. I don’t watch them; I barely read the reports about them…the material in the debates is repetitive,” said Nelson Wiseman, a specialist in elections and voting at the University of Toronto.

There were 28 debates in September alone, with many of them scheduled the same day as other debates. It’s hard to imagine candidates having something different to say from 12 in the afternoon to seven in the evening.

“I don’t think it would be unreasonable in the mayoral race to maybe have five debates,” Wiseman said. “If you’re having 105…. what is it that is going to be new in these debates that we haven’t already picked up?”

Debates have become an important piece of the candidate’s campaign strategy to secure votes, but the number of people watching them compared to the general population is “infinitesimally small,” according to Wiseman. As such, debates don’t tend to have an effect on election outcomes.

In fact, studies have shown that debates don’t really shift voter decisions at all, and Wiseman agrees.

“When you’re listening to someone you’ve already thought is better, it’s rare to have a swing from one to the other…debates tend to reinforce preexisting opinions.”

Wiseman adds that while debates don’t affect the polls, polls often affect how debates go.

“You notice now people are ganging up on John Tory,” Wiseman said. “That’s because he’s in the lead. If Olivia Chow was in the lead, the other two would gang up on her…. They’re all influenced by the polls and so are their campaigns and their campaign organizers.”

On the flip side, candidates fear that if they’re not having enough debates, or if they refuse to attend, they might be thought less of.

“I don’t think the candidates think that having a hundred debates is worthwhile,” Wiseman said. “They don’t want to get tarred with, ‘well he’s a chicken—what’s he running from?’”

At the end of the day, whether you’re sick of debates or not, there are still 13 scheduled debates in October. Not that it will matter by election day anyway.