Casual voters heading to the polls in Indianapolis Tuesday could be forgiven for not already knowing which party Mayor Greg Ballard represents and whether challenger Melina Kennedy is a Democrat or a Republican.
Their respective lawn signs throughout the city bear no mention of their political affiliations. And a Google search of Kennedy's website turns up "Democrat" a scant nine times. Ballard's website includes 25 mentions of "Republican."
For the record: She's the Democrat; he's the Republican.
The "unbranding" of the candidates is a clear political strategy as more voters tend to shed their party affiliation and identify themselves as independents. But for the parties, the stakes are still high, especially in Indianapolis, the premier mayoral race among more than a dozen across the state this year.
Winning the largest municipality in Indiana means building fundraising power and rallying the troops for 2012. Losing means scrapping for at least a year heading into critical presidential, gubernatorial and congressional races.
Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics in Fort Wayne, says there are a number of reasons candidates ditch the party tag in their wholesale pitch to voters. A shift away from parties, the rise of candidate-based campaigns over the last 40 years and voter disillusionment with both parties in Washington have all created a distaste for political elephants and donkeys, he said.
"The candidates want to stake claim to having the independent vote," Downs said. "Indy is probably a little more Democrat-leaning. But it's a good year to be a Republican. Both know the independent voters are going to be a significant part of their victory."
Kennedy spokesman Jon Mills says the campaign is working to reach as many voters as possible with a focused campaign message.
"We have the word Democrat on lots of other materials," he said. "We're not shying away from that. But definitely it's a broad appeal and there's diverse support across the city for Melina."
Ballard spokeswoman Molly Deuberry says the mayor's campaign didn't give it much thought, in part because most campaigns don't use the party tags anymore.
"The mayor represents everybody in the city and we are encouraged to have support from both Democrats and independents," Deuberry said.
The logistics of a good yard sign typically limit what can be said to just the candidate's name and the office sought, such as "Mayor Greg Ballard" or "Melina Kennedy Mayor." Everything else becomes clutter.
Ballard and Kennedy aren't the only candidates shying from the party labels. Evansville mayoral candidate Lloyd Winnecke, a Republican running in a Democratic stronghold, sports royal blue campaign shirts that read only: "Winnecke for Mayor." Fort Wayne incumbent Tom Henry, a Democrat running in a Republican stronghold, also shuns the party tags.
Moving up the ticket, of the three candidates running for U.S. Senate next year, only Treasurer Richard Mourdock has aligned himself with the "Republican" brand. His campaign signs state: "Mourdock Republican U.S. Senate." Of course, he must win a Republican primary against veteran Sen. Richard Lugar first if he is to go to Washington next year.
It's hard to track how many Hoosiers would vote as independents because the state does not register voters by party. Downs has done two statewide polls since 2008 and found that roughly one third of Hoosiers identify as independents. In his 2008 poll of 900 likely voters statewide, 29 percent identified themselves as independent. And in his 2010 poll of 1,600 likely voters statewide, 32 percent called themselves independent.
The message when you leave off party identification, Downs says, is that "you are above the fray, you are not partisan." It's a good message, he says, for local candidates looking to distance themselves from the partisan squabbling in Washington that has turned off voters in both parties.
Gov. Mitch Daniels may have a lock on the best nonpartisan campaign signs. The almost eponymous round green signs can still be spotted in some places around Indianapolis (Loughmiller's Pub, across the street from the Statehouse, has one hanging near the back of the bar).
Daniels built his rapport working for establishment Republicans from President Ronald Reagan to President George W. Bush and was the establishment's alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race before he chose not to run. But his signs ditch the Grand Old Party for three other words: "My Man Mitch."
Jean Ann Harcourt, president of Harcourt Industries in Rushville, printed the signs for Daniels. She's been printing political signs, mailers, buttons and all manner of political paraphernalia for candidates for more than a decade.
Local candidates tend to slap their party affiliations on material depending on where they're running, she said. Republicans running in the GOP hotbed that is Hamilton County will likely play up their party credentials, she said, while Democrats there will likely run from the label.
While she will print for higher-stakes campaigns, most of her work is on municipal and county races. There, about 50 percent of the campaigns go with the party tag," she said.
"It has declined some, but it's still pretty strong," she said.
Her message to all candidates? Keep it simple: name and office-sought. No clutter.
For Republicans who aren't afraid to show some party spirit, she offers elephant-shaped signs. She's still working on a sign for proud Democrats; the donkey cut-out lacks the heft to survive outdoors through an entire campaign.