Lucky number seven? Or Master Debaters at work?

So yesterday was the seven way leaders’ debate. Or a seven way pile up, however you want to look at it. And most of the analysis I’ve seen so far in the national press is banal, trite, and misleading. And that includes the polling companies who are simply asking the wrong questions. “Who won the debate” is not a terribly useful question (the answer was, of course, Nicola Sturgeon). The interesting question is “What did each party want to get out of the debate and what did they get – and how useful is that?”

wormEven a Twitter Worm is more useful than a pollster asking “Who won the debate”?

So. Why do I say the polling was awful? For the very simple reason that of the seven debaters, one of them only stands in an area with five million people, and another in an area with three million. And Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) was in the opinion of many the performer of the night. For another everyone knows Farage’s schtick. He’s unlikely to have changed minds with it (and there were no real surprises). I’m therefore going to go through each in turn, starting with the people I think gained most.

1: Nicola Sturgeon (SNP)

What did she want out of the debate?
To put it simply there wasn’t that much on the table for Nicola Sturgeon or the SNP. After the referendum she’s a known quantity in Scotland. The SNP are crushing everyone else North of the border – even in Labour heartland. What she could do was put the knife into Ed Milliband – and she knows she’s a much better debater than him.

Did she succeed?
Yes. Eviscerated Ed from the Left, while supporting the two other anti-Austerity parties. And she got off lightly because Ed Milliband and David Cameron were busy feuding rather than attacking her record. It was as good a performance as possible in that format, and she was the only person skilled enough to even exploit her position in a random lineup (right next to Cameron).

Outcomes
More popularity, over 1000 new members since the debate, a lot of English wanting to vote for her. Unqualified success but for fairly low stakes. Over 5000 Twitter followers gained (more than twice Farage’s third place).
Edit: A friend of mine made a very good point. There was something Nicola Sturgeon wanted to gain from the debate. There are two ways of understanding the SNP: A party whose only issue is to break up the UK (and therefore are toxic to ally with) and a party who has a coherent political ideology and should be treated as any other party. Even if you disagree with her ideology, I doubt that anyone watching can reach the conclusion the SNP is single issue.

2: David Cameron (Conservative)

What did he want out of the debate?
To not have it. Failing that to have Ed Miliband fight a war on two fronts.

Did he succeed?
He succeeded before he ever walked into the room. On the night I found him robotic and annoying – but my chance of voting for him remained at approximately zero so I doubt he will care.

Outcomes
For him or his party, not a lot. Almost no one would be surprised if he beat Ed Miliband. He had little in play on the night. His personal goal was to get Miliband cut up by the actual left and there he benefited from Sturgeon’s performance.

View image on Twitter
Twitter cheers and boos via the Telegraph.

3: Natalie Bennett (Green)
I’m aware this is going to be controversial because her actual debate performance wasn’t amazing, and the anti-austerity people all think Nicola Sturgeon won it, ensuring that few people said she did in any way.

What did she want out of the debate?

Several things – and it was a tricky tightrope she was on because of market segmentation. Variously she wanted.

  • To not have something like her car-crash interviews.
  • To not upset her base by being soft.
  • To convince left wing Labour voters she was on the anti-austerity left and was a good alternative if they were disillusioned by Blairites.
  • To convince disillusioned left-wing Lib Dems that the Green Party is a nice party rather than one full of wild-eyed radicals.

Did she succeed?
IMO on all four counts. She wasn’t a master debater. But a more passionate and skilled debater would have been more likely to spook one of the two target audiences to grab however much the base would prefer it. And being frank the base had low expectations. Farage fans and Tories didn’t think much of her performance – but that’s not actually an issue.

Outcomes
More than 250 new members since yesterday. In a party already bigger than the Lib Dems or UKIP. Over 5500 Twitter followers gained.

4: Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru)
A stronger debater than Natalie, she’ll have done more for her personal appeal. But she’s more of a known quantity than Natalie.

What did she want out of the debate?
To raise the profile of her party, of Welsh issues, and show that Plaid Cymru represents Welsh interests.

Did she succeed?
Yes.

Outcomes
I don’t know enough about Welsh politics.

5: Nigel Farage

What did he want out of the debate?
To Farage. To bang on about his pet hobby horse and play the court jester. And to produce a string of pre-prepared talking points that were so heavily scripted that they were put into image macros before going up on Twitter. Not only did he know exactly what he was going to say, but there’s barely any concealment that everything’s pre-scripted.

Did he succeed?
He Faraged very well – but crossed the line with his AIDS remark to the point that Gary Lineker, of all people, called him a dick on Twitter. (For those who don’t know how impressive this is, Lineker was one of England’s greatest football strikers ever – and in a career of over 500 matches didn’t receive a single yellow card, red card, or caution).
Most talked about topics
via The Independent

6: Ed Miliband

What did he want out of the debate?
To get his points across, and give the coalition a good kicking while not being taken out by anti-austerity people pointing out he’d left the left.

Did he succeed?
In a head-to-head with Cameron he performed creditably if slightly creepily, staring into the camera too much. Expectations were low for him (as for Bennett) and had this been a two horse race I’d have ranked him as first. But he was haemoherraging from the left to Sturgeon (who was in another league), and Bennett and Wood to a lower extent.

Outcomes
TBD depending on how well the other parties capitalise.

7: Nick Clegg

What did he want out of the debate?
To not have the coalition and his behaviour over the last five years hung round his neck.

Did he succeed?
Nope. He even made the biggest unforced error. He said something like “I’ve taken responsibility for tuition fees. I’ve apologised.” No. No you haven’t, Clegg. First, you gave a notpology and second taking responsibility involves trying to fix things. Your apology without meaningful action was just empty words and it says things about you that you think that that should be sufficient. There’s a good reason you were autotuned. That said, had Clegg been starting from a decent baseline he’d have looked pretty good.

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