Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.
Lots of work in national political campaigns is challenging. Helping leaders prepare for debates can be as stressful as it gets. Why?
Partisans spend a lot of time thinking about how weak their opponents are. But to prepare well for a debate, you have to imagine your opponents at their best: what they will be trying to do, how they will attack you, and how they might respond to your attacks. If you don't prepare for them to be tough, you're not really preparing.
Second, leaders need candid, often uncomfortable counsel. Including about things that are personal: things like tone of voice, temperament, facial expressions, hairstyle, and posture. Successful leaders may think they've got all these things just right. But few of us are all that good at seeing ourselves as others do. The best leaders don't just accept advice in this area – they demand it.
If debates are normally stressful, this year might be off the dial. With more debates, and a competitive three-way race, all three party leaders will need well-thought-out approaches.
Having done some of this kind of work in the past, I got to thinking what my tip sheet for each of the three main party leaders would look like if I were briefing them.
Thomas Mulcair has thrived as the prosecutor of Stephen Harper. The NDP leader spends almost all of his time in attack mode, but that's about to change.
Mr. Mulcair will increasingly be a target. As experienced as he is, this is still going to feel raw and unrelenting. But he must view this an opportunity to handle himself with aplomb, to show an unflappable maturity, the stuff people look for in a Prime Minister.
His biggest risk lies in how he handles questions about economic policy. He must make voters believe that today's NDP has a platform built not only for labour unions or the far left, but for everyone.
Mr. Mulcair needs to be aware of his temperament. He uses sarcasm well in the House, but on TV, too much sarcasm can rub viewers the wrong way. He may also have a problem to work on when talking about Justin Trudeau: sounding dismissive, bordering on arrogant.
Since people already know that Thomas Mulcair can be tough and serious – they'll want to see a lighter side of him too. Smiling and even joking is something he will want to look for opportunities to do.
Mr. Trudeau no longer has the burden of being the front-runner and now has the opportunity to write the next chapter of his political story. Nobody wants to lose ground, but he can remind himself that people enjoy second-wind-style comebacks.
His opponents have painted the Liberal leader as immature and not up to the job. It's a pretty good bet that he will surprise people with a more solid grasp of the issues than they have been told to expect.
For Mr. Trudeau, more debates are an opportunity, rather than a risk. He can remind voters what they like about him most: his positive, friendly attitude, down-to-earth style, and a sense of optimism about the future.
More than anything else, Mr. Trudeau needs to exemplify strength and confidence in these debates. If progressive voters are drawn to Mr. Mulcair, much of that has to do with his forcefulness.
My tip sheet for Mr. Trudeau would read: spend 70 per cent of your time being aspirational about your ideas, and 30 per cent bluntly describing what you feel are Mr. Harper's failings, especially the idea that he serves the Conservative Party first, and ignores those who don't vote for him. When attacked, return fire and then some. But always finish with a message of why the country deserves a new, more inclusive, less partisan approach.
Like any PM, Mr. Harper spends his time surrounded by people who don't ask him tough questions or give him uncomfortable advice. His biggest risk is coming off as self-satisfied, and conveying a sense of entitlement to the office. On many days in the House of Commons, which few voters watch, he does so.
In debates, he'll be exposed to hours of direct assault. (One has to wonder whether Tory eagerness for more debates will turn into regret as reality becomes more clear). There will be no Paul Calandra or Pierre Poilievre to handle the pesky mortals across the debate floor.
Mr. Harper, more than anything else, needs to recognize that a win lies in coming across as calm, genial, thoughtful, reasonable, and respectful of his opponents. He must sound like a man who takes no votes for granted, and gets that voters don't reward the past as much as choose a future.
When he challenges his opponents, as he must, he should use it as an opportunity to show a mature confidence, and avoid the aggressive, chip-on-the-shoulder partisanship that can turn the temperature up, and turn voters off.
If all of this sounds simple, it's far easier to describe it than to do it. The stakes will feel high, and adrenaline can derail strategy at any moment. For voters, these debates are a great opportunity to get a glimpse into the soul of these individuals and also to observe how disciplined they can be, because they will all enter the room with a game plan in mind.