To work out who won these debates between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, you have to ask the audience. The trouble is that different audiences will tell you different things.
If you asked the studio audience, they’d say that Darling won the first round and Salmond the second – a point reinforced by most of the media coverage (such as in the Daily Mail, Guardian, Herald, Financial Times, New Statesman and Huffington Post) . However, I think this says much more about the bias of the audiences, and their participation in the debate, than Salmond and Darling. At key points, the audience seemed more important than the politicians on stage (thus bringing to life Schattschneider’s famous thought experiment). Salmond and Darling were making very similar points in both debates. In the first, Salmond was uncomfortable and seemed defensive when pressed to reveal his currency ‘Plan B’. This time, he was self-assured when presenting ‘three Plan Bs’. In the first debate, the currency argument was working great for Darling. This time, you could hear people ridiculing him when he tried to press the point home. It seemed to make a difference, giving Salmond the confidence to make a further claim, which might have faced an audible backlash in the first debate: if we don’t get our share of the Bank of England’s assets, we can’t be expected to share the UK’s debts.
Darling often seemed defensive or repetitive, and lost his cool enough to break ranks from Better Together to stress his Labour credentials – which he is entitled to do, but it suggests that he has an uneasy temporary alliance with his Conservative and Liberal Democrat colleagues. He also seemed unable to adapt quickly enough to Salmond’s surprisingly-subtle and relatively soft concern about the future of the Scottish NHS – a topic which has often proved important enough to knock the currency issue off the headlines. In the lead up to the debate, Better Together’s argument was about the Yes campaign’s ‘scaremongering’ and ‘lies’, which related to the claim that: privatisation of the English NHS would reduce spending on the Scottish NHS; it might oblige Scotland to follow the same path (a problem exacerbated by the new ‘TTIP’ trade deal between the US and EU); and, only a written Scottish constitution could guarantee a public health service. Yet, Salmond merely said that, in the future, the UK government might start charging fees and spend less on the NHS, which could have a knock-on effect for the Scottish budget (Health Secretary Alex Neil went a bit further in the Scottish Parliament). I think this wrong-footed Darling, who seemed determined to identify the Yes campaign’s scaremongering regardless.
If you asked the ‘snap poll’ audience, you would get the same answer: Darling won the first round (56% agree, if you remove don’t knows) and Salmond the second (71%). Note that, of course, your response very much depends on who you already support. Note also that it is difficult to avoid the manly punch up metaphor, which seems appropriate, given how long Salmond and Darling engaged in some entertaining/ off-putting verbal sparring.
However, right now, the only audience that matters is the voting public. Remember that, in the first debate, a Darling ‘win’ produced either the same opinion poll results or a slight bump for Yes in a small number of polls. This time, Salmond’s win had no immediate impact on the vote. As John Curtice argues, we won’t know if there has been an effect, if any, until we wait for people to read and think about the debate and its coverage over the next few days and weeks.