How Glenda Ritz brough down Supt. Goliath
NASHVILLE, Ind. — There were rumblings this summer and fall that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett might have a race on his hand.
This was quantified by the Howey/DePauw Indiana Battleground poll taken Oct. 28-30, showing 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 Indianapolis school teacher, recruited to fill a ballot position. A Democrat hadn’t been elected a “statewide” executive branch office (below governor and lieutenant governor) since 1996.
But when the votes were counted Nov. 6, Ritz pulled off a stunning 1,335,232-1,185,104 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?
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.
And there were educators chafing under the sprawling education reforms initiated by Bennett and Daniels 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 money disparity, with Bennett raising north of $1.6 million that fueled hundreds of TV ads, while Ritz raised a meager $300,000 — peanuts for a statewide race.
But the catalytic factor in this upset was the use of social media.
Dave Galvin, a friend of mine, was brought on to the Ritz campaign. As Galvin described it 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, outwork 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 a social media campaign based on a hybrid of two strategies: The 2008 Obama presidential campaign and the tactics of social media activists during 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.”
That was the “slingshot.”
The “stones” were what he described as a “well-crafted consistent barrage of challenges” to Bennett’s 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 said. “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 3 million web ads had been strategically placed in front of over 90,000 targeted voters in counties surrounding Marion County. There were 120,000 teacher-to-voter postcards sent in targeted precincts.
Then came strategically placed radio and 3 million internet ads. The Ritz website went from 600-800 unique views per week to more than 10,000.
“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.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com.