Conventional Un-Wisdom: Yard Signs

Conventional Un-Wisdom: To win this district, you need yard signs.

You want to make me cry on election night? Let me find out that a good candidate lost by a slim margin, but had a ton of yard signs. The answer is always no. NO YARD SIGNS. They don’t vote, they never will. Had the time and money been spent on virtually anything else, the candidate would likely have won by a slim margin instead of losing by a slim margin.

I'm a yard sign, I can't vote.  Go knock on doors.

Each yard sign the campaign purchases, at costs ranging from seventy cents to upwards of four dollars a each, has a larger, hidden cost. For each yard sign you campaign purchases, it will drain an average of three hours from the campaign. Time organizing the signs in the office, managing inventory, arranging for pick ups, deliveries, and the worst part – handling the inevitable issues of lost/stolen/destroyed yard signs.   So yard signs manage to drain from all three of the most precious resources on a campaign, time, treasure and talent, while producing zero votes.

Kerry/Edwards 2004 Sign vandalized with "Bust"

Every cycle, at least one, if not several campaigns (regardless of party affiliation) get wrapped up in spats over allegations of stolen, destroyed or vandalized campaign signs. Don’t ever do it. Don’t put out a press release or an email alleging the opponent stole your signs, altered them, used them for a bonfire…doing so will NEVER help your campaign. You will look like a whiner and really, you are. Yard signs don’t vote. Yard signs don’t matter. Focus on what matters.  Stick to your message and disseminating your narrative. The objective is to be seen as a strong leader, not the kid who got picked last for kickball.

But this district is special, in this one yard signs really work! No, they don’t. There is no special magic in one district versus another that adds effective message delivery, narrative, emotion, or other persuasive capacity to yard signs. If you can find a way to teach yard signs to vote, you will be very wealthy, until then, focus on things that actually do impact elections – canvassing, phone calling, fund raising, and other forms of good old fashioned organizing.

Yard signs don't win elections

While there is some “feel good value” attributable to yard signs, the costs far outweigh the benefits and similar feel good value can be achieved through much more efficient means. Start with treating your volunteers, supporters, donors and the rest of your constituents with respect and utilize positive reinforcement. Give them alternate feelings of “ownership” of the campaign by giving them specific goals for winning their own neighborhood. Show them the real data, how many votes you need to win from their street. Teach them to organize, to bring their friends and neighbors together to meet the candidate, surrogates or campaign staffers, show them they can make a big difference.

There is a benefit to some (non-yard) signs, four foot by eight foot signs and banners can be useful for major traffic flow sites and use in parades and events. I recommend campaigns purchase roughly two 4×8 signs/banners per 25k potential voters. Buy them all at once to reduce per unit costs, and make them consistent to the campaign″s branding. Mix corrugated plastic signs with durable banners, get them all two sided, and make sure they are union printed with bugs and proper legal disclaimer per the laws of your election. For those doing the math, that means if you are running for Council in a district of 20k voters, two 4×8″s max. If you are running for mayor in a city of 150k voters, 12 4×8″s, for Congress in a district of 500k voters, 40 4×8″s maximum. Mixing that with 25 signs and 15 banners to get your forty should suit you well through a typical Congressional campaign.

Yard signs don’t vote. They become a part of the landscape after a relatively short period of time, and typically have a very limited viewership anyway. It is always amusing to hear an irate supporter complaining about their missing yard sign on the end of a cul-de-sac where the candidate has locked up all of their neighbors as well. Or their complaint is that their neighbors on both sides have the opponents signs up…it isn’t impacting the outcome of the election, focus your energy on getting out your votes and winning persuadable voters with effective organizing techniques.

There is data, produced by reputable Political Scientists, that shows that yard signs can increase “name recognition” – which some argue is a needed first step to introducing a candidate to the public.  The flaw in this logic is that it is an empty introduction.  You have provided me a name, but no narrative, no message, no emotional feelings (unless the sign is amazingly ugly or beautiful to the viewer).  What have you gained?  You haven’t influenced a persons propensity to vote, or altered who they may vote for should they vote.  The data is clear on that as well.  Spend the money on organizing and persuading voters to show up AND vote for your candidate.  Introduce the candidate to the public with effective introductory ads on tv, radio and by utilizing earned media, in the earliest stages, rely on good organizers and appearances at events to present your candidate to their potential supporters.  Yard signs don’t vote.

Even worse, most yard signs are purchased and/or distributed over the final weeks of the campaign, after the point which a candidate should have attained sufficient name recognition.  Right now, in late October, just 13 days from the general election, at least three (top tier) candidates have emails in my inbox promoting yard signs.  There is no math that has a candidate with low/no name identification overcoming that deficit via yard signs.  Yard signs don’t vote.

At the highest level of campaigning, there are vendors that will provide your supporters with the opportunity to buy yard signs direct, meaning the campaign never has to touch them, and all questions regarding the signs can be referred to the vendor. The Obama for America campaign in 2008 did this effectively, allowing supporters to purchase yard signs, t-shirts, canvass bags, mugs, car magnets, bumper stickers and even baby clothing with the campaign logo on it through their website, with the items shipped directly to the supporter’s home.

There is one other function of yard signs, really the primary function and most significant positive capacity they have, candidate ego.  In a Congressional Special election there was a huge list of candidates with a number of multi-millionaires.  All of these self-funders bought thousands upon thousands of yard signs and had paid “volunteers” distribute them to every median, sidewalk, right-of-way, abandoned lot, shopping center, fence, lamp post, street sign and even a homeless people who weren’t moving fast enough.  The candidate who won had less than 400 signs, all of them from previous campaigns, modified with spray paint as needed.  They were distributed daily along the route the candidate would travel, giving him the impression that everywhere he went, he was loved.  No reason for him to know the signs he saw on the north side of the district yesterday are the same signs he’s looking at on the south side of the district today…he felt great and it invigorated him going in to every event.  On the other hand, you can accomplish this by having a candidate people actually do love…  Far less costly and you eliminate the 4 man hours per day relocating the signs.  Yard signs don’t vote.

I should provide additional information, it is not legal to place yard signs anywhere but private property where permitted by the owner of said property.  Businesses who lease property typically have clauses in their lease about signs, requiring the owners permission for any additions or changes.  State, County and local ordinances may apply, but all of them are subject to Constitutional review as violations of free speech, choose those battles wisely, they aren’t likely to net you many votes.  All of the signs you see in public spaces, such as medians and along the sidewalk/curb are illegal in most of America.  They are subject to being picked up by the county/city/state/etc and in some communities fines for littering or similar ordinance may apply.  Yet another reason not to bother with yard signs.  Yard Signs don’t vote.

ps.  If you ignore everything else above, don’t ignore this…DON’T PUT YOUR FACE ON YOUR DAMN SIGNS.

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