Indiana gubernatorial candidates typically have about six months between the primary and general elections to introduce and define themselves to the electorate. And they’re already spending millions to do so.
But 2016 isn’t a typical election cycle.
There are 188 days between Indiana’s May primary and the general election.
Incumbent Republican Mike Pence was elevated to the national ticket, catapulting Eric Holcomb to the head of gubernatorial ticket with just more than 100 days to go. He says it’s been a whirlwind since.
“I’ve almost approached it as if a day equaled a typical week,” Holcomb says.
That’s involved crisscrossing the state, meeting as many people as possible. Still, Holcomb says it’s not as if he’s started completely from scratch – he’s been in the background on three of the last four gubernatorial campaigns.
“I’ve made a lot of contacts so I know not just where the counties are but I know where good people are in every county so it’s made the travel easier than maybe a typical first-time statewide candidate,” Holcomb says.
Holcomb’s Democratic counterpart John Gregg says the switch from Pence to Holcomb didn’t change a thing for him – he still has the same core message.
“I always challenge people to look beyond the party labels. You know, as a Democrat, you gotta have Republican support and independent support to win in Indiana,” Gregg says.
Some political theorists say this is a smart message. Ball State political scientist Joseph Losco says, in a statewide race, party affiliation can be just as important as name recognition. So, he says, more people know John Gregg’s name than they do Eric Holcomb – after all, Gregg was the Democratic candidate for governor in 2012, too, while Holcomb was only recently appointed Lieutenant Governor, the first public office he’s ever held. Yet Losco says that doesn’t necessarily give Gregg an advantage.
“The difference is that Democrats start at a disadvantage in this state. So he’s got strong support among his base; he’s got to extend it into moderates and undecideds,” Losco says.
Still, Gregg often defines himself in contrast to Holcomb on the issues of LGBT rights and women’s healthcare, portraying Holcomb as Mike Pence’s quote “rubber stamp” on social issues. And Losco says, that tactic could backfire with those undecided voters.
“The undecided voters are probably not all that concerned about those social issues. That probably won’t be a determining factor for those independents,” Losco says.
This could work in Holcomb’s favor, and he seems to do his best to stay away from LGBT rights– even when asked directly for his opinion on the issue:
“I tend not to focus very much of my time in areas that have a almost zero percent probability of moving forward,” Holcomb says.
Instead, Holcomb says he’s “laser-focused” on economic development and education.
“We’ve got a low unemployment rate; we’ve got a higher than the national average when it comes to the labor participation rate. We are a low cost-of-living state,” Holcomb says.
Holcomb has yet to put forth his own specific plans for the future. He says he is the candidate who will continue the record of the past two (Republican) governors.
Gregg is happy to attack Holcomb there, too.
“If you want constant fighting over public education rather than trying to solve some of our challenges in public education, want to see us continually drift in per capita income, you want to vote for him,” Gregg says.
Of course, Holcomb and Gregg aren’t the only two gubernatorial candidates on the ballot. Libertarian Rex Bell is too – and while winning is his primary goal, he also has what some might call a more achievable goal in mind:
“I would hope that we increase every year. You know, I think in 2012 our gubernatorial candidate got a little under four percent. So, you know, if I can get that 4-percent, if I can get 10-percent, if I can get 15-percent…,” Bell says.
Bell’s strategy to do that is, at its heart, no different from Gregg or Holcomb’s - introduce himself to the electorate, create an identity in the minds of voters. But the way he’ll go about it is a little different.
“We don’t have the money that the two old parties have had and so we’ve decided that we’re going to use the internet. It’s a great equalizer,” Bell says.
All three candidates have less than two months left to define themselves – and their opponents – to the voters. And the only thing anyone knows for sure is that there will be a lot of money spent trying to do it.