In May 1996, consultants told Frank O'Bannon he quickly needed a running mate. He excused himself from the room, called South Bend Mayor Joe Kernan, and came back a few minutes later saying, "I just took care of that."
In May 1996, consultants told Frank O'Bannon he quickly needed a running mate. He excused himself from the room, called South Bend Mayor Joe Kernan, and came back a few minutes later saying, "I just took care of that."

INDIANAPOLIS - As the O’Bannon old guard gathered at the Skyline Club last week to talk about the legacy of the 47th Indiana governor and another reunion of staff assembled in Rocky Ripple earlier this month, another point in time flickered to the fore: 6:17 p.m. Nov. 5, 1996.

John Goss, the O’Bannon campaign field guru, was in the shower, preparing for a long night. Stephen Goldsmith was gathering his family and supporters at a downtown hotel on a night they expected about a 5% victory.

And then CBS News anchor Dan Rather announced one of the most improbable upsets in modern Indiana political history: Democrat Frank O’Bannon had won the Indiana governor’s race.

Goldsmith entered the 1996 gubernatorial race as a heavy favorite, easily defeating Rex Early and George Witwer Jr. in the Republican primary. Lt. Gov. O’Bannon had seen the polls that showed him down by double digits. “And it was closer to 20 than 10,” said campaign manager Tom New.

But eight months prior, at a focus group session on the south side of Indianapolis, the campaign’s national consultants, Frank Greer and Geoff Garin, were delighted at what they had heard. It was at this point they believed they could win an election against Goldsmith. Campaign spokeswoman Rachel Gorlin told Howey Politics just after the election, “There was no reservoir of goodwill toward Goldsmith person- ally. Everything about his appeal was connected to the city. What we found was Frank O’Bannon and Steve Goldsmith were mirror images of each other. Our focus group revealed that people wanted to believe Frank O’Bannon, but with Goldsmith, people were ready to believe the worst.”

As with many big cities, many things can go wrong, and in 1996 there was Golfgate, a fish kill and then the Meridian Street police brawl that the O’Bannon campaign was able to use to take off the luster of the “Indianapolis miracle.”

Another component of the campaign was opposition research, conducted by an Oregonian named Dan Carroll, who not only picked apart the Goldsmith record, but did what New described as a “rip your face off” analysis of Frank O’Bannon. It was adroitly packaged so that no matter what the Goldsmith campaign said about O’Bannon, “We could pull it off the shelf and deliver an immediate response.”

So when Goldsmith tried to connect O’Bannon to 38 tax increases while in the Indiana Senate in his first fall TV ads – coming three weeks after O’Bannon had gone up on TV – the campaign was able to effectively respond.

There were a number of instances where the campaign demonstrated it was hitting on all cylinders. In May, Garin and Greer walked through a lengthy memo of what needed to be done. David Johnson said Garin told O’Bannon, “You need to get a lieutenant governor right away.”

O’Bannon excused himself from the room. “It’s about 8:30 at night, it’s not going well and the numbers were bad,” Johnson recalled. “So Frank walks out, gets Joe Kernan on the phone, gets him out of bed and he asks him if he’ll do it, and Kernan says, ‘I’ll do it.’”

O’Bannon strolled back into the meeting and casually said, “I just took care of that. I have a lieutenant governor candidate.”

The seeds of that came six years before when South Bend Mayor Kernan and O’Bannon went on a trade mission to the Soviet Union and Poland. “They had not known each other before but they became very close on that trip,” Johnson said. “It was always in the back of his mind to have Joe Kernan on the ticket. Kernan told him, ‘If you really, really want me to do it . . .    but really, I’d rather not. I love being mayor. I love where I live. I love the people who I work with. I don’t need this, but if you need me ....’”

New explained, “We ran a steady campaign. They ran a less than satisfactory campaign. We just started just chipping away. We went up five weeks in April, even though we didn’t have an opponent. My biggest scare was we were going to wake up after the primary because the media was going for the Republican side and we were double digit down. We stayed up all through April and even a week after the primary. We cut five points off right there.”

During the summer, the campaign stalled and the numbers didn’t move. When the O’Bannon/Kernan campaign went up uncontested for three weeks in August, New said, “That’s when the compression happened. We went almost dead even. Just two points down. That’s where it happened.”

Johnson was sitting in on a weekly Indiana Manufacturers Association polling series and became ex- cited early that fall when the IMA numbers began mirroring the internal O’Bannon numbers produced by a young Fred Yang. “I was pretty confident six weeks out,” Johnson said. “The trending was just going his direction. And no one else could see it. “

Christine Matthews of Bellwether Research did the IMA polling. “That’s the race where we knew Goldsmith was going to lose, and tried to tell the Goldsmith campaign,” Matthews said. She recalled that Tarrance Group pollster Brian Tringali “called me to tell me all the reasons why I was wrong and they were right and that Goldsmith was going to win.”

The Goldsmith campaign made a series of blunders, from not working up a ground game, to spending $2 million in the Chicago media market. Meanwhile, Center Township Trustee Julia Carson was ginning up the black vote in Indianapolis, to the point where Goldsmith would lose his home city by 17,000 votes. In the doughnut coun- ties deep in the Indianapolis media market, Goldsmith came away with a tiny 27,000 vote plurality.

“Frank O’Bannon was always underestimated as a candidate. And he was certainly underestimated in 1996,” New said. Part of that dynamic was bringing on Greer as a consultant. “Frank Greer seemed to be able to communicate with Frank O’Bannon in a way some of these guys couldn’t. He was a little more senior, had some gray hair and Frank O’Bannon related to him. He listened to him in ways he might not have listened to others.” The candidate was not the best public speaker, but Greer was able to get O’Bannon to fall in love with the lens.

Then there was Fred Yang, the pollster.

About 10 days out, he began compiling a three- day rolling average. “At 11 o’clock every night Fred would call me with the numbers,” New recalled. “About 10:30, I’d start pouring the bourbon and sit in my little house on Kenwood. And Fred would always mess with my head for at least three or four minutes before he’d get to the actual numbers. It was nip and tuck. We were up a point, down a point, it was always in that range. It was always plus one or negative one and the last poll we took, we did the Thursday before the election, it suddenly went to four. We hadn’t seen anything above one or two.”

The final result: O’Bannon 52%, Goldsmith 47%.

The O’Bannon campaign of 1996 is rated by Howey Politics Indiana as one of the best in the television age of this state’s politics.