Finally, Election Day. After a short but heated campaign period of little more than two-and-a-half weeks, the Dutch voters are going to the polls. Squeezed in between the summer holidays and an early called election, this short campaign was one to a large degree fought on television. No less than eight televised debates between the main candidates of the different parties were to be seen over the past few weeks, with little time left for campaigners to change from post-debate spin to preparing for the next contest. So this was what Dutch prime time television looked over the Summer.
It was hard to escape the debates, let alone the pre- and post-debate coverage in newspapers and television. Who will win, who will do poorly? Who is well-prepared and who is a good debater? Who won, who lost, who did better than expected, or worse for that matter? And what do the voters think? Classic horse-race coverage, we all know what it’s like.
If one believes common assertions about election debates, in academia or public discourse, a few things stick out. First, they usually are described as being utterly boring (in particular if held in high frequency). In fact, one could argue that for most people there probably is nothing more boring on national prime time television than a fifth election debate within ten days (that of course excludes the political junkies who also would watch ordinary parliamentary debates on a normal Tuesday afternoon). Debates are boring as the format is predefined, the positions on various issues are known and we know who likes whom and who is likely to attack whom – not much new in debates.
Second, although utterly boring, people still like watching them. Over the past few weeks the ratings for the main television debates on Dutch public and private broadcasters were good, consistently above a million and debates featured among the top viewed programs of that day (yes, this is nothing compared with the almost ten million watching a European Championship football game, but it’s close to the 1.5 million watching the daily soap Goede Tijden Slechte Tijden every day). So why would people watch a debate? Supposedly primarily to see how the candidates perform, and it becomes particularly exciting when attacks get harsher or when someone messes up the debate.
Third, and very importantly debates are among the very few moments during a campaign that a politician has rather unmediated and unedited access to a very large audience. True, there are rules and questions, but when does a politician get the chance to speak for maybe a minute uninterrupted and live to an audience of more than a million? With ever-shorter soundbites in political news coverage, this is not trivial.
Fourth, it’s not the debates that matter, but what makes a difference to the polls is how the mainstream press covers the debate afterwards. Who won and who lost – that is the big question everyone asks afterwards. In fact the post-debate spin starts the second the debate is over with commentators and journalists making judging winners and losers. Polls are carried out among the viewers of the debate and after less than an hour or two we know “objectively” who was the evening’s winner. And that is what sticks to peoples mind and might affect voters’ predispositions to support one or the other candidate.
Debates should be great opportunities for populists. Although normally boring, the populist may spark some fire in a debate by making bold and harsh attacks on the mainstream. A debate gives an opportunity to stick out and to juxtaposition the elite interests of traditional politics with the ones of the man on the street. Furthermore, populists get unedited access to a fairly sizable portion of the common people they want to represent. With little journalistic intervention, what is being said gets straight to the audience. This begs the question of how the two populists on the far right and the not-so-far-anymore left anymore of Dutch politics have actually been performing over the past weeks. Did the debates help their campaigns?
The simple answer is no. So what happened, and why did Geert Wilders from the Freedom Party (PVV) and Emile Roemer from the Socialist Party (SP) apparently fail to seize the opportunities provided by a sheer debate marathon?
Wilders, like him or not, he is a great debater. With largely prepared one-liners and bold attacks on multiculturalism and Europe, Wilders is always good for laughter and for spectacular debate moments. No different this time, Wilders certainly had his moments. For instance referring to the Labour Party – the Partij van de Arbeid – as the Partij van de Arabieren, the Party for the Arabs, or in a debate about health insurance costs saying rising costs should be paid for by the Greeks, not by the sick people – de rekening bij de Grieken, niet bij de zieken. But there were also moments when this strategy appeared to be working less well. A moment in the RTL debate for instance, when, although the topic was a different one, Wilders slipped in this year’s mantra, a strong anti-EU message. People started laughing, not about his statement but about the ridiculous boldness with which Wilders repeats this message in the most unsuitable situations. They were not laughing with him, they were laughing at him. The campaign did not help Wilders in the polls, but did not damage him either, showing a stable 12 percent of the electorate supporting him. It seems as if people are getting tired of his style, his rhetoric, so more than the core of his voters would not be mobilized (which is not to say that he was irrelevant – the PVV and Wilders were just not the big players in the campaign).
Former primary school teacher Roemer in terms of appearance and expression is much closer to ordinary man than Wilders. The campaign showed dramatic consequences for the SP. In the debates, in particular the first debates, Roemer had to face a strategic problem. The positioning as the populist left opposition had boosted the SP into hitherto unknown heights in opinion polls. For some weeks during the summer it looked as if the SP would become the biggest party, with Roemer having a good chance of becoming Prime Minister. So he had to look “prime ministerial”. By going in that direction, Roemer lost authenticity in the first debates and dramatically lost support in the polls after the first debates. The SP electorate wants a populist, and if they don’t get the populist they can just as well go with the more serious alternative on the left. And with PvdA candidate Diederik Samsom there was an alternative that became more and more viable, closing a 10-percentage point gap between the Labour Party and the Liberal front-runner VVD within a matter of two weeks.
If one were to advise the PVV and the SP on the strategy for the next campaign, on basis of what we saw over the past weeks, one should probably tell Roemer to go back to who he was when he was successful, a left-wing populist, and tell Wilders to go out and re-invent himself if he wants to continue playing a significant role in Dutch politics. But let’s see whether the polls are in fact reflected in the outcome tonight.