Dissecting Schellinger’s Mistakes

Matt Tully’s latest column in the Star that looks at the missteps made by Jim Schellinger’s campaign:

The Indianapolis architect ran one of the most disappointing, bland and dysfunctional campaigns Indiana has seen in years; a top Democrat called it one of the worst statewide efforts since Republican Linley Pearson’s 1992 bid for governor.

For Schellinger, a primary blowout was averted only by the late hires of campaign manager Tim Jeffers and communications director Jennifer Wagner. The sharp duo stabilized the campaign this spring. By then, however, it was too late, and on Tuesday, underfunded rival Jill Long Thompson won by four-tenths of a percentage point. The margin was so narrow that it suggests Schellinger would have won if he had run even a mildly competent campaign.

Tully’s analysis hinges on a few main points:

  1. Wasted 2007
  2. No clear vision
  3. Boring ads
  4. Lake County

He mentions several other problems, but his main points seem to oversimplify things. Most importantly, he never explicitly names the on-the-ground organizing that made the difference in this race.

Continued after the jump…
Let me take a quick stab at each of those four points:

I think both candidates “wasted” 2007 – neither engaged in the sort of profile-building that is usually necessary for a challenger. (That said, I heard Long Thompson speak to small groups 3 times in 2007 as she quickly gathered support in Monroe County.) To be fair, neither candidate could have known that the Presidential race would overshadow all Indiana politics leading up to the primary – they both probably assumed they had more time than they did. But since JLT had better name recognition going in, the fact that neither candidate did much in 2007 ends up leaning slightly in her favor.

I take issue with Tully’s mischaracterization of Schellinger’s lack of vision. He did manage to generate some discussion around the release of his plans, but I do think he unveiled them a little too late in the game. His plans were – and I say this as a JLT supporter – very well thought out, well presented, and showed a surprisingly cohesive vision from a political newcomer. Schellinger never really consolidated what could have been an advantage for him.

Tully’s focus on Schellinger’s “boring ads” fails to highlight what I think was the major failing of the campaign: the Bob Shrum model. Schellinger, with the backing of the Indianapolis Democrats, relied too much on a top-down, consultant and media driven race. This may have worked if it wasn’t completely overshadowed by the Presidential race, but it’s a dangerous gambit in any case. I’ve seen this happen in races from the local level to the national level – candidates with better ground organization win more races than candidates with better media campaigns. A knock on the door is much more convincing than any TV or radio ad. In Monroe County, Obama’s campaign out-organized the Clinton folks at every turn – and, from what I understand, her campaign out-organized his (with help from many of the same people organizing for JLT) up in northern Indiana.

Tully is right about Lake County – as he points out, JLT’s 10,000+ margin there made up the lion’s share of her narrow overall margin. Tully also rightly credits the Steelworkers, but neglects to mention the relentless canvassing and boots-on-the-ground campaigning that came with that. It was a major risk for the JLT campaign to farm out her field organization to the Steelworkers, but it seems to have paid off. I look forward to reading more about this as the histories are written.

For an excellent analysis of the potential future of the state party, check out Ryan Nees’ latest dispatch for Howey.