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Federal Election ’22: What ScoMo and Albo can learn from a potato

A key election question is whether campaign stumbles influence voting intentions or do they simply fade into a background of elector indifference?

Former US Vice President Dan Quayle can tell you stumbles indeed count, given his experience almost exactly 30 years ago with a bothersome potato.

Parallel to this discussion of stumble impact are expectations campaign troubles could be removed if digital strategies became even more prominent and overwhelmed mainstream journalism as a source of political news. That process is already underway.

In Australia, campaign accidents can be the most prominent element of news coverage with policy dissection presented but often not a priority for news customers — provoking that question as to how deeply voters are influenced by them.

Guardian Australia’s Any Remeikis last week asked Twitter folk how important was campaign performance to their ballot paper markings, and received more than 2,000 replies.

By tone and content, many were making decisions based on the past three years, not on the highly structured and expensive electioneering we will end up enduring for six weeks.

This was a specific social media audience, possibly Guardian readers, but their views were not exotic and would not be unfamiliar to other groups.

“It’s almost irrelevant. You don’t buy things for the wrapper,” replied @Odins_toenail.

From @justwo7 : “I never hear the questions I would ask by journalists. They are not working for us, just their money making bosses. So I judge on record.”

While @rpcounat wrote, “I made up my mind a long time ago. Based on continuous performance over many years.”

And there was this caution from @insurgoformica: “I think we confuse what skills are needed for the role, versus what skills are displayed on a campaign. It’s very rare to find someone with both.”

Not all dismissed the travelling political beauty pageant.

Are touring campaigns still worthwhile?

Election campaigns are relics of an age when prime ministerial incumbents and claimants had to travel to connect with the national electorate, at a time when the internet and social media were science fiction and railways were the closest thing to an information super highway.

Today, Facebook streaming could reach more voters in an afternoon than a week of train travel. And the news cycle was refreshed perhaps once a day, not once an hour.

Voter concerns were relatively uncomplicated. Ballot options were narrow as Australian politics congealed into a system run by two parties.

Further, the electorate was divided into large immovable chunks — blue collar workers, farmers, white collar workers — without need for substantial deference to, for example, ethic, gender or non-Christian religious groups.

There still are benefits for touring prime ministerial contenders as people want an idea of who they are in person. It can be a superficial evaluation but for a relative unknown, such as Anthony Albanese, it might be considered essential.

But the temptation for campaigns to go almost completely digital, and so extend reach and lower cost, is growing. Voters might have to chose to log on and those ratings could provide a better measure of candidate support than opinion polling.

And it might be that carefully staged digital campaigns would eliminate unruly press conferences and the associated mistakes coming from unscripted questions.

But do the present campaign routines and those mistakes matter?

Potato… Potatoe

They do, according to US President George Bush’s deputy Dan Quayle who at one point was setting his ambitions on getting the presidential job himself, in part by showing his Republican mettle with aggressive attack’s on Democrat Bill Clinton.

In June, 1992, his entourage stopped off for what was considered an unexceptional visit to a New Jersey school where he joined a prearranged chat with a 12-year-old student for a spelling bee.

The pupil correctly wrote “potato”, but Quayle insisted it was “potatoe” — with the cameras rolling.

That little, unnecessary “e” created a frenzy and a long-running joke — lots of potato-based headlines about him being roasted or mashed — that would haunt him throughout his political career.

“In the language of media politics, this was a gaffe – the perfect gaffe from four years of the press’s patrolling for them,” Quayle later wrote.

“It was more than a gaffe; in the language of (Republican strategist) Lee Atwater, it was a ‘defining moment’, of the worst kind of imaginable.

“Over the next several weeks, continuing through the Democratic Convention and beyond (to this day, in fact), there was an avalanche of late-night jokes and Democratic sound bites.”

That was it for the Quayle political ambitions, a career devastation Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese might keep in mind over the coming two weeks.

Episode 1: Get your go-bag ready

April 6, 2022

Episode 2: Hire me, please

April 12, 2022

Episode 3: Press pack mentality

April 20, 2022

Bonus Episode: Tory Maguire, executive editor, The SMH and The Age

April 21, 2022

Episode 4: Positively negative campaigning

April 26, 2022

Bonus Episode: Anthony De Ceglie, Editor in Chief, The West Australian

April 28, 2022

Episode 5: Mounting criticism of the media

May 2, 2022

Episode 6: Bush politics

May 9, 2022

Inside the Media Scum

Have you ever wondered how and why journalists and editors cover elections the way they do? Don’t know your doorstops from your divisions? Have you ever wanted to be inside the media scrum to see what happens behind the scenes of the biggest media event and most consequential form of democracy in Australia?

During the 2022 federal election the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas will take you Inside the Media Scrum to give you an insider’s guide to how and why the media is covering the election the way they are.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Farr, who has covered every election since 1993 and has written on federal politics for publications across the media landscape, including The Australian, news.com.au, Crikey, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and more, will provide an eagle-eye view of the media during the campaign.

Amanda Copp, Political Reporter for the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia’s National Radio News, is covering her first federal election. She will be out on the road with the major parties and will provide a first-hand perspective of what it’s like reporting on a national election.

Each week Malcolm and Amanda will be filing stories, newsletters, video and podcasts to help you keep across the media in Federal Election 2022. So, sign up for the latest updates and follow JNI on social media to go Inside the Media Scrum.