The problem with the Liberal leadership debates isn’t the number of candidates but the debate format.
It’s past time for the debate organizers within the party to tier these debates and to surrender editorial control to a journalist, not a party stalwart worried about ruffling the candidates’ egos.
Since this weekend’s debate, there’s been ample suggestions that the presumed also-rans – Deb Coyne, David Bertischi, Martin Cauchon, Karen McCrimmon and George Takach – should bow out to make room for the remaining four candidates.
I flatly disagree.
While it’s unclear to me what David Bertischi brings to this race, other candidates have distinguished themselves. George Takach looks to have a surprisingly strong ground game and is hitting some good fundraising targets. Deb Coyne has some intriguing policy ideas. Karen McCrimmon continues to impress me – I think I saw one tweet relishing the prospect of having a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Liberal caucus.
But here’s the thing: this leadership race isn’t simply about picking one leader. Justin Trudeau (who I am supporting) happens to be right. This race is about reaching out and engaging Canadians.
Each candidate knows they can only compete if they sign up thousands of supporters in every riding nationwide. And so every candidate is a benefit to the Party: there’s sign-up strength through the number of candidates.
As an example, when Justin Trudeau came to my hometown of Bradford, Ontario this past weekend and around 300 people turned out, we got over 200 people to fill out their information. But George Takach’s smaller dinner party in town a week before also helped in signing up new supporters.
This leadership race is an exercise in “big data”, collecting the emails and then the policy concerns of Canadians.
Liberals need data to run a modern campaign in the Obama age of digital campaign organizing.
And therein lies the solution to these bloated debates.
Think back to that epic contest between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. There were nine candidates then too. But the debates were predominately between Obama and Clinton. The journalists moderating the debates kept the focus on the frontrunners.
In a static race like 2008 when it was clearly between two people, the focus on the frontrunners was frustrating to candidates like Joe Biden or John Edwards. It meant whole sections of the debate were exclusively about the weakness of Clinton or Obama.
But in last year’s Republican primaries, as Mitt Romney’s main opponent shifted in the vote tallies, it did in the debates too. Each debate, he found his main opponent rotating between Rick Perry, Newt Gringrich or Rick Santorum, depending on which challenger had the momentum.
This “class system” helped. It meant a stronger, changing campaign narrative. The frontrunners got more time to speak and the questions were tailored to address their individual weaknesses. It meant a wider audience because there was more drama amongst the frontrunners.
In the last Liberal debate, every candidate got equal billing and Marc Garneau and Justin Trudeau never really got to finish their opening exchange due to time constraints.
So next leadership debate, bring the focus squarely to Trudeau and Garneau. If one or both of Joyce Murray or Martha Hall Findlay look able to break into the upper tier, add them into the mix accordingly. Everyone gets a chance to speak, but let’s focus on the frontrunners.
Yes, it may feel unfair to the other candidates. But a bloated, constrained debate is unfair to the audience. And it’s the audience’s experience that should count because it’s the audience the Party needs to sign up as supporters.
Oh, and get a Amanda Lang or Steve Paikin, rather than a Party stalwart, to moderate the thing.
Jonathan Scott is the president of the University of Toronto Liberals.