Did "underdog" status hand Salmond his great leap forward?

28 August 2014 -


Scotland’s first minister was bound to win this week’s second televised debate from the outset, writes our political columnist

Madeleine Crowther

With less than a month to go until the Scottish referendum, and postal votes issued yesterday, Alex Salmond had everything to play for in this week’s second of two televised debates on Independence. First on his list of priorities after a resounding defeat in the first stage was turning around his botched handling of the “Plan B” issue for Scotland’s currency in the event of a Yes vote.

It was a cheering result for Salmond’s team, with a snap Guardian/ICM poll awarding him victory by 71% to Darling’s 29%. Media commentators were quick to proclaim a surprise victory for Salmond (tabloid triumph goes to The Scottish Sun with “Not tonight, Darling”). But Salmond’s victory shouldn’t have come as a surprise at all – he was always bound to “win” the second contest. 


The first law of televised debates is that they are always won by the underdog. Just think of the short-lived Cleggmania after 2010’s leaders’ debates. Party leaders already know full well how to avoid this phenomenon. Blair backtracked on the “any place, any time” challenge he put to Major, once he recognised that Major was seen as the underdog. And despite Cameron’s assurance that he would even pay for Gordon Brown’s taxi to the studio in the run up to the 2010 poll, he now recognises that any debate would naturally support Miliband – so there’s every indication that the PM will try to wriggle out of TV showdowns next year. In the case of the Salmond-Darling confrontation, the first defeat set Salmond up as the underdog, making it easier for him to secure victory in the sequel.

Why this should be the case is down to a multitude of factors. Firstly, there’s something going on akin to a regression to the average: because Salmond’s defeat was so decisive first time round, a similarly poor performance was unlikely. He was far more likely to perform averagely well, even tending towards mediocrity. His relative improvement was then judged by the public, and this stood in for the actual merits of his performance. This relative improvement then registers as a victory. In fact, I contend that if the order of the debates had been reversed, but all particulars – e.g. all of the words and gestures – remained the same, viewer polling would have shown a more even split between Salmond and Darling in the second debate.

Secondly, the favourite in the debate is often the incumbent, or the authority figure. It is therefore their job to defend the status quo, and that of the underdog to challenge it. That puts the favourite at a disadvantage because it is very difficult to make the status quo inspiring. People, mainly media commentators, like to move stories on – to talk about what’s new and what’s changed. As such, Darling’s repeated arguments that Salmond doesn’t have a workable back-up currency plan got slated, even though it was a mark of strength in the first round, and is arguably still a worthwhile point of debate.

It’s unclear that televised debates actually sway voter behaviour: the ICM poll put the same level of support for independence after the debate as before it. What is clear is that if you want to “win” a debate, it may be best to concede an early defeat, only to come out swinging later.

Madeleine Crowther is a consultant at corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications

For more thoughts on media presentation, check out this forthcoming CMI seminar, scheduled for 25 September.

Image of Alex Salmond courtesy of lev radin / Shutterstock.

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