Accessibility is missing in today’s election battles

August 26, 2022 7:00 am

Mitch Daniels’ campaign RV is now housed by the Indiana State Museum for possible future exhibits. (Niki Kelly/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

When a new Frugal Hoosiers political action committee was recently formed, it brought back a flood of memories covering Mitch Daniels’ first campaign in 2003 and 2004. And with it came the realization that candidate accessibility is long gone.

And not only for reporters but also for voters.

Candidates nowadays regularly refuse to participate in debates that would give voters insight into their stances; town halls are few and far in between; those running for office pick and choose the reporters they will speak to and refuse to answer questionnaires on issue positions.

No wonder I find myself remembering Daniels’ run with a bit of melancholy.

When he departed D.C. as the national OMB director, he immediately hopped onto an RV and drove around the state for more than a year. All day, every day. RV One — as it was called — was truly a mobile campaign headquarters.

Daniels would spend the day talking to voters – and not only the ones who liked him — usually with only one staffer around, often the driver of the RV. At night he would stay in voters’ homes – making the bed in the morning.

Inside the door on RV One, showing what the signatures looked like before they faded on the rest of the RV. (Niki Kelly/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

He invited reporters to spend the day with him on the road and view all the interactions – whether positive or awkward. He sat and answered every question. Those who met him along the way signed the RV, though the signatures have faded as it sits in storage at an Indiana State Museum facility.

The RV, by the way, was last brought out as a surprise for him on his 70th birthday. The odometer reads 84,918.

I flew to several Indiana cities with Gov. Frank O’Bannon during his re-election in 2000 – spending the day watching him in action and bringing perspective to a profile.

Now both of these were before Twitter and social media in general was in its infancy. Can you imagine any candidate doing that nowadays?

When Mike Pence ran for governor in 2012 a reporter could meet him at events – if they told you his schedule and that was a rarity. But Democrat gubernatorial nominee John Gregg allowed reporters to tag along that year. Holcomb’s run for governor was an abbreviated 100 days in 2016, which didn’t leave much time. Then his re-election was during the height of COVID-19.

Nowadays reporters are lucky to get 15 minutes with candidates of any kind.

And voters have even less access. Or at least access that isn’t tightly controlled. Today’s events are largely limited to friends and supporters, ensuring a supportive atmosphere. If you are lucky enough to get to hear from a candidate directly there are sometimes strict rules on asking questions, taking videos and more.

It’s partially thanks to the gotcha phenomenon of politics nowadays, buoyed by the immediacy of Twitter. Both sides do it – take a clip out of context, use misleading statements. By the time something is clarified it has reached thousands. And Donald Trump’s vilification of media has inspired copycats – see Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new ad.

National media certainly hasn’t helped the local media landscape even though local reporters handle themselves much differently. It is my hope that candidates approach access knowing it isn’t our goal to “get” someone. It is our goal to understand someone and how they will govern.


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Niki Kelly
Niki Kelly

Niki has covered the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 – including five governors. She has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and Hoosier State Press Association for stories on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, criminal justice issues and more. She also is a regular on Indiana Week in Review, a weekly public television rundown of news. She shifts her career to helm a staff of three and ensure Hoosiers know what’s really happening on the state level.