Nikki Haley won the South Carolina governorship last year despite breaking with a longstanding tradition of successful campaigns. The Republican, amid a steady grumble from some old timers, charged supporters for yard signs. And Haley’s camp isn’t the only one asking for donations in exchange for what has long been a comp for activists.
In the last couple of cycles, it has become increasingly common for campaigns to ask for a contribution before they hand over a yard sign. The driving force behind this trend is cost saving, but there are many other benefits. With that said, there are also some potential downsides. A few things campaigns should consider when contemplating whether to pass the hat:
Show me a sign. Like anything that uses campaign resources, financial or otherwise, it's important to consider the purpose of campaign signs. When you know why your campaign is ordering signs, then you will know whether it's appropriate to ask for contributions for them or not.
If the campaign is interested in rewarding volunteers with signs or wants to strategically place them on the private property of community leaders, these are yard sign strategies where asking for contributions is inappropriate. On the other hand, if the campaign wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford signs or has decided that they’re of little strategic value, then it's best to ask for donations.
Winning contacts and influencing voters. Campaigns can eliminate the cost of signs altogether by asking for contributions, but there’s an added bonus from the transaction. The campaign can also get the supporter’s contact information to make a small donor ask later or follow up during GOTV. Defraying the cost of the sign is great. but building a list of supporters who will convert into low-dollar event contributors and respond well to email or direct mail solicitations is even better.
These lists also add bragging rights at reporting time as the campaign can tout its grassroots support. Ultimately, hundreds of supporters requesting signs can result in thousands of dollars in small contributions. The same principle applies to adding supporters to the campaign’s social media accounts and email lists.
Asking for donations also reduces waste. Over many campaigns, I’ve encountered supporters who requested dozens of signs at a time. At least some of those supporters who went home with an armful of free signs left a few sitting in their garage or basement through Election Day. Likewise, fewer signs end up along the highway or other places where they are less valuable to the campaign. If the sign costs something, supporters will likely post it on their lawn where it has the most impact.
Breaking with tradition will mean hurt feelings. Many long-time volunteers and activists have come to expect free yard signs. I have literally been screamed at, had doors shut in my face, and been told that asking for donations for yard signs would cost the candidate the election. While these examples are extreme cases, those campaigns could have avoided some unpleasant conversations by simply handing over a yard sign free of charge. If some voters are willing to cause a scene at campaign headquarters over a sign, you have to wonder how many other voters complain to their friends and neighbors without the campaign knowing about it. A few dollars to print a yard sign is a small price to pay to keep those supporters happy.
The principle benefit of campaign signs is to increase the candidate’s name recognition. For candidates who have low name identification, signs are one tactic to increase it. If a campaign requires a donation for a yard sign, fewer supporters will take signs, thereby reducing their impact. To split hairs, the supporters who donate for signs will tend to be in more affluent precincts where the candidate’s name ID is likely higher than in lower income precincts where the signs are needed more.
Money isn’t everything. Campaigns that don’t feel comfortable asking for a donation, or have weighed their options and determined that it’s not the best strategy, should consider other ways to leverage campaign signs. Give signs to supporters who tweet about the candidate or who share an image of the campaign sign on Facebook. This will put the candidate’s name and the office he or she is running for in front of thousands of people quickly. In addition to social media strategies to leverage signs, another possibility is to give signs to volunteers, or require other non-financial contributions from supporters in exchange for the campaign’s merchandise.
Ben Donahower writes about campaigns signs from a political operative’s perspective at Campaign Trail Yard Signs. Some campaigns get advice about signs from a printer, but Ben makes campaign yard sign recommendations to candidates rooted in political principles.