How many will watch and what’ll be the impact?
Itâ€™s almost certain that one of the highlights of the coming election will be the series of debates between the main party leaders. Working out how much the debates will impact on the election campaign is largely a judgement call but a crucial one. Britain has little experience of this sort of thing. The closest the country has is the weekly Prime Ministerâ€™s Questions but they are frequent, formulaic, limited in scope and a daytime attraction. They may however give an insight into how the leaders will perform.
One other precedent was the Question Time during the 2005 General Election campaign that featured the three leaders but they appeared in succession rather than together so it was closer to a series of hustings than a debate. 2010 will be different.
We know that there is a substantial audience for the right piece of TV political drama. The heavily trailed Question Time featuring Nick Griffin pulled in about 8 million viewers despite airing at 10.35pm. Iâ€™d fully expect at least double that for the first ever full-scale leadersâ€™ debate.
By way of comparison, even though the US presidential debates viewing figures have declined in recent elections, the most-watched in each series will have been seen by at least half the number who end up voting. In earlier elections, when debates were still a novelty – as they are here – the viewing figures were much higher: almost as many people saw the debates as voted in the first three elections in which they featured. That would translate to around 25 million were it to happen in the UK next month.
If those assumptions on the scale of the audience are close to the mark, itâ€™s not unreasonable to suppose that how the leaders perform could alter their partiesâ€™ fortunes by several percentage points.
â€˜Couldâ€™ however does not mean â€˜willâ€™. Knock-out one-liners or campaign-threatening gaffes are the exception. â€˜Senator, youâ€™re no Jack Kennedyâ€™ or â€˜there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europeâ€™ are memorable not least because they are rare.
Even so, the candidates will be in somewhat unfamiliar territory and that increases the chance of an error. PMQs is subtly different. The point there is partly playing to the local audience – MPâ€™s – and partly aiming to get a 30-second soundbite on the news. In the debates, the viewersâ€™ relationship with the leaders will be much more direct.
A well-placed killer line will still be effective but repeating the same phrase again and again, especially if doing so avoids dealing with the issue, is likely to turn the voters off. Likewise, inconsistency or a failure to grasp detail could become much more apparent in the longer format.
Of the bookies, Paddy Power looks to have been most imaginative in creating Debate-related betting, offering six markets. The best value I can see looks to be on the â€˜first to noticeably perspireâ€™, which makes Clegg favourite at 11/10, despite Brown and Cameron appearing to carry a few more pounds. By contrast, Clegg is the outsider at 3/1 for â€˜who will win the first debateâ€™ (to be settled on an ICM poll), which may also offer some value given the equal footing the Lib Dem will get and the likelihood of Cameron and Brown being on the receiving end of most attacks.
The debates are now probably the biggest remaining known unknown. In an election in which apparently large numbers are still unconvinced by the options on offer, that matters all the more.