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In the weeks leading up to Election Day many local newspapers report on the colorful yard signs that dot their locale’s lawns, boulevards, and shop windows.
Inevitably these pieces will include the question, are campaign signs effective? The pro-signs side takes a tradition view. Sure, they’re effective because they remind voters there’s an election, Rick Asnani, a consultant at West Palm Beach-based Cornerstone Solutions, recently told a Sun-Sentinel reporter. Without yard signs, some voters would be turning up on Nov. 18 to cast their ballot.
In New Jersey, political science professor Larry Butler declared that signs are “useful if the sign is in someone’s yard, rather than in a public area.” Their usefulness extends to raising the name ID of an unknown candidate seeking an obscure office. Dog catcher candidates get your orders in.
In fact, most consultants, myself included, feel they’re a complete waste of time. But proving that to a candidate and his cadre of volunteers is another story. I can quote the misguided sign strategy from a plethora of volunteers over the years. “Y’all got any signs? I got a lot of good locations if you want to put some of them 4x8s out,” one supporter told me.
“We gotta get us up a sign committee and really get ‘em out,” another eager beaver said. One enterprising fellow once told me: “I got a pickup truck that I park around town, and for $50 a week I’ll put your sign in the back.”
But inevitably, some folks view signs as a barometer of a campaign’s effectiveness. Under this logic, if a candidate doesn’t have enough visible yard signs, is she even a candidate? “Y’all hardly got any signs out,” one volunteer told me recently. “Your opponent has ‘em everywhere. It’s like you’re not even running.”
All of these comments inspire fear and loathing in the hearts of consultants everywhere. In addition to the usual well-meaning volunteers, sometimes it’s the candidate, his or her spouse, or the campaign’s biggest contributor suggesting that you waste time, energy, and money on meaningless and overpriced printed materials.
Signs are a consultant’s nightmare and a print shop’s dream. You can never have enough of them, they’re a drain on your campaign budget, and your field staff (if the campaign is big enough to even have one) and they don’t do a damn thing for name ID, messaging, or GOTV.
Never once in the history of democracy has an election swung in favor of or against a candidate based on her having or not having signs outside of a polling place. Yet we all know stories about volunteers getting up at 3 a.m. to make sure all the polling places are “covered.” I have yet to meet a voter persuaded by the majority of yard signs outside a polling station.
Beyond their lack of effectiveness, the other issue with yard signs is that they get stolen. And in the modern age of social media, you get the inevitable backlash against sign thievery. “Attention Campaign Sign Stealers: We know who you are and we have called the authorities,” is one Facebook post I recall verbatim. When it comes to just how much I hate signs, the lowest circle of disgust is reserved for the vigilante protectors.
I also tell my clients that if the other side is stealing signs that’s a good omen, because it usually means they’re running the type of wrong-headed and old fashioned campaign that bothers with such trivialities. Meanwhile, we’re running a sophisticated, modern, data-driven, and communication-focused one—also known as the type that wins. Still, the sign protectors never listen and inevitably want to call the sheriff when two or three of their precious yard decorations disappear.
I have a strategy for dealing with “The Sign Question.” The best way to handle this is to build in a line item of the budget for printing them. Then I hold the candidate accountable for not exceeding it. Many times in smaller, more rural campaigns you cannot avoid them altogether. But I’d rather throw $5,000 away than fight the sign war for six or eight months.
If you need any more proof that signs are the worst, since 2008, we’ve run 20-plus successful campaigns, including a campaign for Bob Vance (D) for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2012. At the time, Vance was an unknown, who entered the contest as a replacement candidate in a race against Roy “The Ten Commandments Judge” Moore. With our help Vance came within 2.5 points of winning despite President Obama being on the ballot.
I also have eight Pollie Awards, was named a C&E Rising Star and received a 40 Under 40 Alumni Award from The University of Georgia, but the proudest moment of my career is running the reelection for Montgomery’s mayor in 2011 and not printing a single yard sign.
David Mowery is the founder and president of Mowery Consulting Group.