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The men behind the curtain

For campaign managers, election night results rarely come as a surprise

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-09-15


On election night the TV air-heads will breathlessly announce: “with twenty precincts reporting Mayor Tom Henry is in a big lead.” A few minutes later at the next break, with a few more precincts in, they will excitedly announce “Paula Hughes has closed the gap to just a couple points” and swivel to interview some politician who is as much in the dark as they are. In reality, the total count doesn’t matter much at that point.

The real horse race has already begun and it is going through your neighborhood, as we speak.

Sean Bartley and Justin Schall are respectively Paula Hughes’ and Tom Henry’s campaign managers. They are a pair of testy bulldogs. Sean is a sparkplug, a young Ohioan who has already guided many political fortunes, some for better some for worse. Same for Justin Schall, Tom Henry’s lead dog. The son of political activists, and an Iowan, Schall has lived all over the country and fought political battles since the early 90s. He is nothing short of determined to win another term for the mayor.

One champion will win and one will lose but they will both apply the same logic to the campaign, so early on election night, if not sooner, they will know whether to pack for the next campaign stop or to pause to uncork a bottle of cheap champagne. Their application of campaign science will decide.

The art of the political campaign has been around a long time, as has the science. Bartley quotes Abraham Lincoln who said during one of his early campaign that it was all about identifying your voters and getting them to the polls on time. Not much has fundamentally changed.

So, the two campaigns and their small armies of volunteers are already well along in sorting voters into three piles: Solid Democrats, Solid Republicans and the undecideds. It is a simple but challenging process of elimination in an effort to reach 50 plus 1, at least one more voter than the opponent.

While Lincoln would quickly understand the principle still applies, he would be impressed with the tools Bartley and Schall have available: TV, radio, Tweets, computers, mass mailings, Facebook, the telephone. But the fundamental is still the same. Identify your voters and get them to the polls

The campaigns will employ the fullest range of media that usually starts with a computerized history of the voting record of everyone registered in Fort Wayne. If you have voted you are on the list. If you vote regularly in the Democratic Party primary you are tossed into a pile: the Hard Ds. Essentially, they are done with you. If you are seen as most likely to continue voting for the Democratic candidate, the chances you will vote Republican are very slim indeed. But, as with shades of gray there are degrees of “hardness” with soft Ds or soft Rs getting attention designed to shore up their vote.

If you are deemed, instead, undecided, a young volunteer might come to your door to ask where you stand. Or, you might receive a call from headquarters or even a personal visit from a candidate. The goal is to find out where you stand, to cross you off the list, to winnow down the list of the undecideds.

Eventually, the campaigns should be able to predict whether your precinct where you vote will go for the mayor or the challenger. They should also be able to predict the margin of the vote, 51-49 or 69-31.

So it will go for the next 50 or so days. The real horse race is already on. The process of elimination, of calculating and preparing to get those voters to the polling place on time, the get-out-the-vote, election day mobilization is in full swing. Bartley believes fervently that he knows exactly what to do. After all, his ground game knocked off Councilwoman Liz Brown when polls and top Republicans said she would win comfortably. She lost in a landslide. Bartley was immediately seen as the smartest guy in town.

Schall is also running the same intense ground game, but with a strong air game, to boot. TV spots with warm colors and soothing music are all over Fort Wayne TV. Hughes has not yet answered. Schall is a steam-roller thundering orders from the mountain. Bartley is running a leaner campaign, not as much money, but just as much dedication and a Republican party leadership that is hungry as wolves to retake city hall after 12 long years in the political woods. Both young men, both campaign staffs, both armies of volunteers are very, very motivated to identify each voter and get them to the polls before 6pm, November 8th.

So, on election night the two young pros may already know whether to pack or uncork as the early returns start to trickle in. If precinct 476 is weak for Mrs. Hughes shouts a warning to Bartley, if 502 goes enthusiastically for the Mayor it brings a smile to Schall’s face, if 107 is 50-50 it could speak volumes about the final tally.

So the raw numbers that the air-heads read with some much excitement mean little. Precinct tallies tell the story. The campaign managers know that and are working now to move voters and precincts into their columns. The race is already on and the champagne is waiting…for somebody.

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