By BRIAN HOWEY
There were rumblings this summer and fall that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett might have a race on his hand.
This was statistically quantified with the Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground poll taken on Oct. 28-30 that showed Bennett with a mere 40-36 percent lead over Democrat Glenda Ritz. An incumbent at just 40 percent that late in the game is, essentially, a dead politician walking.
Ritz was a political novice and an Indianapolis school teacher, recruited by Indiana Democrats to fill a ballot position. The party’s platform called for the office to be one appointed by the governor. In fact, a Democrat hadn’t been elected to one of the “statewide” executive branch offices (below governor and lieutenant governor) since 1996.
When the ballots were counted on Nov. 6, Ritz had pulled off a stunning 1,335,232 to 1,185,104 vote upset. She received 61,656 more votes that Gov.-elect Mike Pence, who outspent her by more than 20 to 1.
How did this happen?
There were several elements to this story. One western Indiana Republican county chairman told me there were about 30 other, mostly rural GOP chairs looking for “payback” to Gov. Mitch Daniels, who had backed Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas over Attorney General Greg Zoeller, who won the nomination and office in 2008.
There were educators chafing under the sprawling education reforms initiated by Bennett and Daniels and passed in 2011 that brought changes to teacher evaluations and the grading of schools on an A through F scale. There had been the state takeover of schools in Gary and Indianapolis with more in the pipeline.
Thus, there was discontent across the spectrum. But something else happened.
The Ritz campaign faced a distinct money disparity, with Bennett raising north of $1.6 million that fueled hundreds of TV ads for more than two months, while Ritz raised a meager $300,000 — peanuts for a statewide race.
The catalytic factor in this upset was the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Dave Galvin, a friend of mine, had been brought on to the Ritz campaign by Trish Whitcomb, the daughter of former Republican Gov. Edgar Whitcomb. As Galvin described in Howey Politics Indiana last week: “The strategy was simple: Build a strong base of supporters, supply them with resources and information, spend funds wisely, run a grassroots campaign by means of social media, out work our opponent, and be innovative.”
“It was a David vs. Goliath scenario and we didn’t even have a slingshot, not to mention that we didn’t initiate the campaign plan until the second week of June, fundraising was slow, we didn’t have enough money for polling, and our primary group of activists — teachers — were on summer break,” Galvin explained.
Galvin and Ritz created an earned media and social media campaign based on a hybrid of two strategies: The 2008 Obama presidential campaign and the tactics of social media activists of the Arab Spring. “The Obama juggernaut was one of the first campaigns to use nano-targeting strategies to drive voters to the Obama website and social media platforms,” Galvin explained. “Arab Spring activists were very effective in not just communicating their message to their supporters and coordinating rallies, but they also used basic social media tools to tell and show the world, in real-time, what was happening on the ground. One way they did this was by tagging photos with the names of relatives and media outlets that lived and operated abroad, as a result they expanded their viral universe.”
That was the “slingshot.”
The “stones” were what he described as a “well-crafted consistent barrage of challenges” to Dr. Bennett’s education reforms designed to plant seeds of doubt in voters’ heads on issues like the A-F school grades. Teachers began discussions about Glenda’s campaign by posting local news coverage of her press conferences on the campaign’s Facebook page. Before we knew it, an article published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier was being discussed by teachers and administrators in Evansville and Richmond.
“First, teachers began to ‘Like’ the Ritz for Education Facebook page,” Galvin continued. “Teachers have a lot of friends, and in the virtual world that means contacts. Then came parents (particularly mothers), administrators, college students, and the most interesting of all, Tea Party supporters.”
By the end of the first week of October over three million web ads had been strategically placed in front of more than 90,000 targeted voters located in counties surrounding Marion County. There were 120,000 teacher-to-voter postcards sent in targeted precincts.
Then came strategically placed radio and three million Internet ads. The Ritz website went from 600-800 unique views per week to more than 10,000 after the nano-targeting program kicked in. “In all, over six million targeted web ads drew approximately 30,000 people to the campaign’s website, and nearly 4,000 of those people clicked ‘like’ on the campaign’s Facebook page,” Galvin said. “By Election Day the Facebook page was being viewed by nearly 200,000 of our ‘Likers’ friends, and our viral reach was over 1.3 million Facebook users.
Galvin noted, “Like David, we missed a couple of times.”
But in the end, an improbable upset occurred with tools created just a few years ago and used from Cairo to Tunis, and now from Evansville to Elkhart.
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol