NEWSLETTER: Yard Signs – A Love-Hate Relationship

December 8, 2023

Derek Dufresne: Yard Signs – A Love-Hate Relationship

When people think about American elections, one of the first visuals that comes to mind are, for better or for worse, yard signs. With the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary quickly approaching, more signs are going up every day, which is a visual reminder that most folks reading this newsletter have a love-hate relationship with them — with a majority of us leaning toward the latter end of that affiliation.

I got my start in politics as a field guy in my home state of New Hampshire, so I certainly have my own love-hate relationship with yard signs. Nothing was more gratifying than proudly pounding a 4/8 billboard into a voter’s half-frozen front yard after convincing them to support your candidate. There was also nothing more hellish than staying up all night on Election Eve to randomly litter thousands of your candidate’s bag signs in roadway medians.

Regardless of our personal experiences with them, yard signs are a hallmark of what the average individual pictures when conjuring up images of a political campaign. Candidates love seeing their names on them. Activists really enjoy putting them up. Voters either appreciate, ignore, or loathe them. And for political consultants or senior staff, yard signs can be our absolute worst nightmare (for good reason).

The effectiveness of yard signs has been debated to death. Most argue that they drain limited financial resources and staff time. Others say they only serve to “preach to the choir” of individuals who already have chosen their candidate, not much else. Many point toward them becoming completely obsolete at a time when campaigns have become incredibly data-driven. All of this might be true to varying degrees, but these pesky, two-legged money pits certainly have history on their side.

Campaign yard signs are the cockroaches of our industry, with them being one of the very few forms of political advertising that have withstood the test of time. The American history of the political yard sign dates back to 1824, when John Quincy Adams had signs printed for his presidential run. The current wireframe version roughly came about in the 1960s. However, the legacy of this kind of political propaganda is much older, as even the ancient Romans left us with excellent examples of them using posters to advertise policies and positions that were important to them.

Suppose we accept that yard signs will remain a part of politics for the foreseeable future. In that case, there needs to be a bit of a truce between the data-driven needs of consultants in modern campaigns and the visual gratification candidates and their supporters get from putting up and seeing yard signs.

The days of volunteers stopping by the campaign office to grab 50 bag signs to put up along busy roads in their town have to end. The wars of field teams competing with their pick-up trucks full of signs on Election Eve also need to go the way of the dodo bird. Both are a waste of financial resources and time. If signs littered throughout a state or district mattered, Ron Paul would have been elected president.

The signs that can matter are the ones combined with data-driven voter ID programs. Signs specifically on home lawns or businesses start conversations between people. They can help to be a visual GOTV reminder to that individual every time they walk by it on their way to their car. These signs can even influence other votes when less-engaged individuals pay attention to the sign in the yard of a neighbor they know and politically align with.

When combined with new technologies and grassroots social media plans, a sign can have an amplifying effect by encouraging voters to take pictures or videos with them and text them to friends or post them on their own platforms.

Getting creative and only using signs in a way that helps achieve the larger strategic goals of the campaign while still fulfilling the innate desire of candidates and activists to use signs is the best way to find harmony. For consultants and senior campaign staff, managing the personal relationships with candidates and their most engaged supporters can be a tricky part of the job. These seemingly insignificant yard signs too often become the tinderbox that damages those relationships. On what can become a very divisive, time-consuming, and financially wasteful part of any campaign, a middle ground on yard signs can be found. To achieve this, consultants and their teams must be willing to take the time and get more creative to balance the needs of everyone on a campaign.

Source: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/post-no-bills-the-ancient-romans-had-a-version-of-lawn-signs-too/

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