As popular as it is to bash TV political debates for being pointless "bloodsport", they actually aren't pointless at all. Just ask Judith Collins.
I think we can all agree these debates rarely change voter minds. Mostly, they just reinforce what voters already think about each candidate. If you already suspect Jacinda Ardern sacrifices principle for political expediency, her refusal to admit how she'll vote in the cannabis referendum might've reinforced that. If you already suspect Judith Collins is a mean girl, her "what's that dear?" would've reinforced it.
But, as always, there are exceptions to rules. There was the famous 1960 USA debate where Nixon looked so shifty and sweaty that some voters shifted to the more youthful and wholesome-looking JFK. Back home, we had the worm-debate where Peter Dunne charmed an electronic squiggle by repeating the word commonsense and was rewarded with a whopping eight MPs.
Debates can - very occasionally - surprise voters enough to change the course of events.
And, that is why the first debate especially has worked for Judith Collins. Because she's surprised her party's demoralised core voters. Not only was her performance better than expected, but she crucially brought back the Crusher. It has quite obviously re-energised the National party base.
Given the pace of campaigns, it's easy to forget how much of a hinge-point last week's TVNZ debate was for the National Party campaign. Up to then, it had felt like the Nats were sleep-walking their way to a repeat of 2002's horrible election result. They had the smell of a massive drubbing about them. National Policy campaign announcements were often being ignored by some media, the big tax policy got little cut-through, the campaign launch got laughed at, the $4 billion fiscal was the icing.
And, then there was the Judith Collins problem. She was performing badly. Instead of Crusher Collins, voters got Coquettish Collins, all cackling and wise cracks. It felt like an attempt to match Arden in the niceness stakes. That was, obviously, never going to work. Collins can't out-nice Ardern. Sure, Crusher is polarising, but there's a huge amount of value in authenticity.
But, that all changed in the course of the TVNZ debate. At some point - either before or during - Collins seems to have made the decision to change tack. She took the fight to Ardern in that debate and won it.
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Since then, she's doubled-down and repeated the performance this week.
The enthusiasm from the party base to that first debate was obvious, and Collins has hardly changed tack since. The polls inched up. The party only climbed 2 points in the Colmar Brunton, but Collins increased her preferred PM polling by more than a quarter, taking her from 18 per cent to 23 per cent. She and the Nats are still miles off Ardern and Labour, but the movement was positive when the opposite was possible given the, till-then, awful campaign.
To be fair, this is hardly a worm-debate reaction, but the TV debates have proven their value to Collins. It was crucial for her to enthuse a base that might otherwise have just wafted off to Act or not even bothered to turn up on election day. Already, there are concerns about voter turnout this year, given how afraid so many are of Covid and how pre-determined the outcome has felt.
We'll never know how bad things might've got for the Nats if Collins had turned in a poor debate performance, but we can take a guess that it would've been awful given phrases like "death spiral" were being thrown around. Collins seems to have rescued the Nats' campaign a bit. She can probably thank the first TV debate for that. It gave her the chance to reset and to bring back the Crusher.
• Heather du Plessis-Allan hosts Drive on Newstalk ZB, weekdays, 4pm-7pm