Prior to the leaders debate at the 2004 election, I went to the trouble of unearthing poll results on the previous debates going back to 1984. The Hawke versus Peacock debate of that year was the first, as it was previously a well established item of conventional wisdom that debates had little to offer an incumbent. However, Bob Hawke could hardly refuse in 1984 as Labor had run television ads during the 1983 campaign mocking Malcolm Fraser for his refusal to play ball. The record since makes clear that Fraser’s reticence had been well founded, as incumbents have only managed two wins from nine starts. In fewer than half of the nine cases did the winner of a debate go on to win the election.
1984, November 26: Peacock 50, Hawke 37 (Spectrum poll).
1987: Once bitten, Bob Hawke chickens out, leaving John Howard’s supposed debating shortcomings unexposed for another decade.
1990, February 25: Hawke 46, Peacock 36 (Newspoll).
1993, February 14: Hewson 45, Keating 31 (Newspoll).
1993, March 7: Keating 44, Hewson 38 (Newspoll).
1996, February 11: Howard 50, Keating 36 (Newspoll).
1996, February 25: Howard 54, Keating 36 (Newspoll).
1998, September 13: No poll located, but reports of the worm suggest Beazley narrowly defeated Howard.
2001, October 14: Beazley 55, Howard 35 (Newspoll).
2004, September 13: Two-thirds of Nine’s studio audience gave it to Latham over Howard.
It should be noted that Channel Nine clearly botched the job of assembling an audience of undecided voters at the 2004 debate, as the behaviour of the worm made clear. Particular notice was taken of a green-haired young gentleman in the audience who looked like nobody’s idea of a person who was considering a vote for Howard. Nonetheless, the overwhelming weight of published opinion, including my own, was that Latham had indeed put in the more confident performance.