What should we expect from election debates?

For those who have, like me, become unhealthily addicted to the smorgasbord of political news available to massage the ideological disposition of even the most partisan voting-eligible, you’ll be stocking up on popcorn and caffeinated soft drinks in preparation for this year’s round of election debates. But do they make a difference? Are they relevant? What’s the best we can expect from them in 2017?

It’s not hard to find sources that suggest the now-traditional TV leader debates have the potential to dramatically swing the pen of the electorate. I’m less convinced, at least about the “dramatically” bit. One reason is that, in democracies like Aotearoa New Zealand, our political positions are pretty ingrained. Most of us who have voted a couple of times will have that nagging feeling of identity in the back of our heads that marks us as a “Labour voter”, a “National voter” or even a “Green voter” or “New Zealand First” voter. I say “or even” because it’s not so long ago that these parties were a glint in Rod Donald and Winston Peters’ eye.

Indeed, our first MMP election in 1996 marked a dramatic change to our ballot papers — previously we’d had two, perhaps three, real options to vote for, but that changed to a list of twenty-something (although the Blokes Liberation Front was not perhaps a real option). Voters raised on a diet of National and Labour could now choose something other than their traditional meat and three veg, able to try something foreign-sounding and previously un-sampled. In that election, we could call upon the familiarity of Winston in his signature style of just daring his National Party family to kick him to the curb.

But 20 years is a long time, and we’ve had enough time to develop what is called “party identification” with even these upstart newcomers. That feeling of identification with a particular party that develops over a long period of time, traditionally influenced by our families and social networks, and now our TV and social media.

For that reason, when we watch a debate we see it through the eyes of the already committed. At least those of us who have that feeling of identification, and that’s still the majority of us. If Bill English delivers his lines with the ennui of an old hand, the National identifiers will call him a steady hand and Labour identifiers will decry his lack of spark. We will become textbook examples of confirmation bias — the phenomenon whereby we tend to seek out and process information in ways that confirm our existing world views.

Unless we’re the yet-to-be-committed, that is. In which case, debates may be important opportunities to learn about the candidates. There’s a long tradition of research that suggests when someone seeks to influence us (and not just in politics) there are two routes to persuasion. The ‘central’ route travels through active and thoughtful weighing up of the information. This is the route travelled by those with time, with commitment. The ‘peripheral’ route, on the other hand, is the shortcut via an assessment based not on the strength or internal consistency of the message, but instead on things like the characteristics of the messenger. Or, as I recall from a family member some years ago, “I’ll vote for him, he has a lovely smile”.

Of course, you can reach the same destination by either route, but there are ramifications from the alternatives. Decisions reached by a central route tend to be longer-lasting, while peripherally influenced decisions can appear more capricious, more fickle (“Ooh, but he has an even nicer smile”). Make Aotearoa Great Again, anyone?

It is a lot more complicated than this article can do justice to, but I’ll make my predictions now. Bill and Winston are well-known quantities, so voters will hear what they expect to hear, for good or ill. Jacinda Ardern has the most to gain because she is new. For the uncommitted, she needs to articulate her vision for the centrally inclined and will pick up via the peripheral route because she is young and female. She will also lose because of this combination — a chunk of the electorate will feel in their bones that the tiller of the economy rests best in the hands of a white middle-aged man.

Personally, I think it’s the missteps that will prove most important, where people fail to live up to the expectations of their constituencies. Now grab your snacks and plump a pillow, because it’s almost show time.

Professor Marc Wilson will chair the Wellington Central Candidates’ Debate at Victoria University of Wellington at 12.30pm on Wednesday 2 August, as part of the University’s Democracy Week.

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