Labor was confident in its little target strategy – another by-product of the devastating 2019 loss – and Albanese even said explicitly at a press conference: “One of the things we do in this election is under-promising so we are over-delivering. ”
His most valuable campaign asset was the costly 16-seat marginal follow-up ballot, “the track”, which gave the opposition a narrow but stable and consistent lead. The tracking data was highly protected, but one person with limited access said: “It was always around 51-49. He didn’t move. Nothing that was thought to make a difference made a difference.
The Labor campaign’s worst moment came on the first day, when Albanese was unable to state the national unemployment rate and does not now have the cash rate. While some people tried to downplay the embarrassing reporters’ “pricked questions,” the sentiment inside campaign headquarters was dire: These were basic numbers, and he should have known.
Voters tagged Albanese for this mistake; the questions surfaced in Labor Party research. Was the party really a safe pair of hands on the economy if its leader didn’t know the statistics?
“It was a ‘heads in hands’ moment for many, many people,” a campaign source said. “It was a big hit.” But a week or two later, voter concerns had dissipated, if not disappeared.
Outside the research lab, Labour’s greatest asset was Scott Morrison. Liberal strategists said the same thing. At one point, as Labor prepared to flip the switch to go negative on the Prime Minister, ‘No More Morrison’ posters were literally displayed on the walls inside Labor’s campaign HQ.
Erickson brought in two stalwart advertising gurus, Darren Moss and Dee Madigan, for this election – Madigan’s Campaign Edge crafted the ruthless “It’s Not My Job” ad that aired widely on commercial television and infuriated liberals by using Morrison’s quotes out of context.
But Labor overlooked much of the material offered to it by Morrison’s own colleagues. It did not put Barnaby Joyce’s assessment of Morrison as “a hypocrite and a liar” on a high spin, nor Gladys Berejiklian’s reported description of him as “a horrible, horrible person”.
Why? Campaign strategists tested these messages with voters and found them to be persuasive, but not as persuasive as the more basic message: “Do you really want more Scott Morrison?” Hence the ubiquity of Morrison’s name and face in Labour’s campaign material.
From a ramshackle office at the Hyde Park end of Oxford Street, Erickson ran an operation described as inclusive and disciplined. Alcohol consumption was prohibited in the office, although staff were free to imbibe in the many nearby bars, while old hands were brought in from across the country and around the world.
Julia Gillard’s former chief of staff, Ben Hubbard, helped play war during the campaign, while another Gillard staffer, Ryan Batchelor, worked on politics. Kevin Rudd’s former COS David Epstein came on board, while veteran strategist and fixer Eamonn Fitzpatrick set up a “review unit” to exploit the Coalition’s weaknesses.
Former Welsh Labor general secretary Louise Magee arrived after the budget and helped lead the campaign.
The campaign was not without problems. Albanese’s relationship with the traveling press pack was poor at times; he lashed out at “pricked questions” and seemed to tire of the scrutiny that accompanies an election campaign.
As the weeks went on, it became increasingly clear that work was in trouble at Fowler, where Kristina Keneally had been parachuted following a reckless NSW play Right to have her cake and eat it too in keeping both Keneally and Deb O’Neill in parliament.
Keneally’s blunder came up in searches on both sides; Labor tried to air negative stories about independent (and former liberal) Dai Le, while the Coalition started talking about pushing Le over the line on preferences (which happened).
The party also generally failed to anticipate the scale and imminence of the swing to the Greens in Brisbane, although it was always known that a Green breakthrough was possible in those seats.
And of course, despite clearly winning the election, it is still unclear whether Labor will form a majority government.
The specter of 2019 loomed over the entire six weeks of the campaign and Labor insiders were never willing to declare the race won. But they suspected the government knew the jig was lifted penultimate Friday, the grim Friday May 13, after Morrison’s press conference with Chisholm candidate Gladys Liu in Melbourne.
It wasn’t so much that Morrison described himself as “a bit of a bulldozer” and admitted he would have to change the way he acted and behaved. It was more that Morrison had also begun to focus on the future, in particular a ‘better future’, which was the Labor campaign slogan.
The change in language – imperceptible to most people watching – signaled to Labor strategists that the two sides were fighting on Labour’s preferred ground. Coupled with their likely success in Western Australia, that was enough to sustain confidence until the final buzzer – the diametric opposite of what happened in the final days of the campaign in 2019.
On Friday evening, campaign staff members left their HQ for the last time and crossed the street to party at the Burdekin Hotel – where the atmosphere was obviously electric, fueled by the possibility of making the ‘story.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and ideas of the day. Register here.