Two weeks ago the first leaders' debate breathed new life into a tired campaign and pricked the interest of an electorate apparently long since bored with elections.
Last night, the third and final debate arrived in just as much hype, but in truth will have had minimal impact on the voting habits of its millions of viewers.
The impact of the first debate has been widely documented. Nick Clegg fully exploited a rare opportunity to break Labour and the Conservatives’ duopoly on politics coverage on television.
By being erudite and authoritative, Clegg attracted a host of voters who probably could not have picked him out of a line-up before the debate and turned the election into a genuine three-horse race
But Brown and Cameron (or at least their teams) have both been very quick to learn from Clegg’s performance and adapt their performances to get the most from the live debate format.
Clegg had seen his poll rating soar on the back of revolutionary tactics like referring to the audience by name and talking directly into the camera.
By the second week’s show, the other two had cottoned on and were desperately falling over themselves to sound as if they were on first name terms with every single member of the studio audience and only stopping to grinning directly into the nation’s living rooms.
As a result, after the second debate, the polls remained largely unaffected. The snap polls asking which leader had ‘won’ the debate showed results roughly in line with the broader opinion polls. People who were planning to vote Labour thought Gordon Brown had won; Tory-voters thought Cameron had walked it and Lib Dems were convinced Nick Clegg had come out on top.
By week three the leaders had settled on a uniform presentation style that was perceived to work and none was taking any chances. The most adventurous move any of the leaders made was Nick Clegg’s ditching of his gold tie for an orange one.
The debate – covering the economy - should have been the most interesting, and vital to the watching audience, but the speed with which the media-savvy spin doctors have polished their message delivery means that the programme ended up as little more than three men reading highlights from manifestos with which we are already familiar.
We know Labour hopes to increase National Insurance; we know the Conservatives oppose that; by now the majority of the electorate are even au fait with the Lib Dems’ plans to increase the top rate of income tax.
Now they have all sussed the most effective way to get their message across, we have very quickly arrived at a point where there is very little for the leaders to gain from the televised debates.
As long as they managed to lay out policies without doing anything stupid like advocating entry to the Euro, revealing Lord Ashcroft’s tax bill, or calling David Dimbleby a bigot, they would be sure of not losing anything either.
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