For all the attention we give political debates, it’s unusual for one to make a huge difference in an election campaign. There are rarely decisive moments and while political insiders watch them closely, members of the general public have many other things competing for their attention.
But debates do matter. They help to shape the narrative of a campaign, even for the people who didn’t watch them live. In 2015, Justin Trudeau used the debates to prove he was a more serious candidate than his opponents suggested. Although the circumstances are much different, that’s probably the test tonight for Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford, who has already been demonized in Liberal attack ads but remains at the top of the polls. If Ford looks less scary than the Liberals make him sound, it could cement a path to victory. If he stumbles, it could reopen the campaign.
But the biggest challenge tonight could be for Andrea Horwath. Her third election campaign is probably her best opportunity for a breakthrough. As for Kathleen Wynne, even though she’s an effective communicator and experienced debater it’s hard to imagine anything she could do to overcome the enormous appetite for change.