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Campaign Signs: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

What role should campaign signs — which can cost a candidate $2 to $16 or more per sign — play in local elections?

The election's over and the campaign signs that proliferated in front yards and public spaces seem to be gone — mostly. Whever old campaign signs go to die, it's a relief to have them vanish ... until next time.

Dana Albert, who blogs for nearby Albany Patch, has some interesting post-election thoughts about the campaign sign phenonmenon: what if the setting — a messy yard, say, or a gas-guzzling car parked out front — reflects badly on a candidate? Do the brief messages conveyed by signs match a short attention span? Why was a cyclist pedaling up Claremont Avenue with a big campaign sign attached to his bike frame?

I've reprinted most of Albert's blog post below. (You can read the entire post on Albany Patch.) Take a look, then tell us what you think about the role of campaign signs in the recent Oakland election.

Glutted by Campaign Signs

By Dana Albert

I think a lot of people are relieved to have the election over.  Personally, I won’t miss all the campaign signs stuck in people’s yards.  I’m not exactly against this practice—in fact, I had a sign in my own yard this year—but I’m not exactly for it, either.

First of all, I never quite understood the point of these signs.  How, exactly, do they promote the candidate or ballot proposition?  My kids asked me this question and I had trouble answering.  (When I can’t explain something to my kids, that’s often a sign that it doesn’t actually make sense.)

Sure, there’s name recognition.  But how principled is that?  I remember seeing Chevy’s win “Best Mexican restaurant in SF” in a local newspaper, which shows only that a lot of voters who don’t eat Mexican food just wrote down whatever name popped into their heads.  Is this really how we want to elect candidates for local office?  Shouldn’t we be voting based on ideology and competence, not mere recognition?

I can’t very well tell my kids that the signs work the same way Coca-Cola billboards do, because then my kids would challenge me on the sign in our own yard.  I’ve taught my kids, by example and through lectures, to boycott any product that advertises heavily.  Why?  Well, I hate ads.  I find them obtrusive, and worse.  When I drink a Coke, I think about how little the product costs to make, and yet how much the Coca-Cola company spends on advertising (close to $3 billion a year).  That means that most of what I spent on my Coke is going toward ads to sell more of it—not just to skinny cyclists like me who need it, but also to sedentary kids who don’t.  So I’m helping pay for a public health problem.

Getting back to campaign signs:  it may be that you have no issue with them.  Well, you probably never had the experience, as I did back in 1994, of bike touring along a beautiful country road in a red state and seeing signs promoting Ollie North for U.S. Senate.  I almost hurled.

Sure, it’s a bit different where local government is concerned.  My wife has pointed out that the willingness of homeowners to put these signs out shows that the candidate is well-connected and well-regarded in the community.  A fair point.  On the other hand, signs cost money, so the rampant signage in local campaigns starts to look like the greater arms race of the national elections, where the best-financed candidates often have an unfair advantage.

Some of the signs have slogans or very, very brief arguments on them.  This makes some sense; the phrase “Endorsed by Sierra Club” does, I think, say something meaningful about a candidate.  But other times these brief arguments are just blather.  It’s hard to be articulate on a sign people see only in passing.  It’s the same way with t-shirts and bumper stickers.  “Obama 2012” is a simple enough message on a bumper sticker (though it’s a bit redundant when stuck on a Prius in Albany).  Similarly, “I’m With Stupid” is easy to read on a person’s t-shirt, but we often miss the longer message on her husband’s shirt (usually something like, “The statement on my wife’s shirt is meant ironically, as a subtle dig at the hackneyed and vapid messaging of tourist trap souvenir merchandise.  She actually respects my intelligence”).

Another problem I have with campaign signs is that they might influence voters in ways the candidate didn’t expect.  What if the house and yard, not to mention the homeowners themselves, unknowingly reflect badly on the candidate?  For example, my lawn is dead, and has three jack-o-lanterns rotting in it.  Is that what my candidate would have chosen for a backdrop?  It’s not just the lawn either.  My car, parked right out front, is a big gas-guzzler by Albany standards, and is usually covered with guano splotches from the birds roosting in our trees.  Worst of all, I often play loud music while working on my bike in the driveway.  What does it say about a candidate when you walk by his supporter’s house, see the candidate’s name on the sign out front, and then hear some rocker yelling “Love is a four-letter word never spoken here!”?  I doubt my candidate knows about, or would approve, this message.

You might think I’m just joking around, and of course I am, but I’m also serious.  What if a candidate gets a sign in somebody’s yard, and then that somebody also posts a sign supporting a ballot proposition which the candidate opposes?  (An example would be a candidate endorsed by the Sierra Club whose sign shares a lawn with a sign supporting Proposition A1, which the Sierra Club didn’t support and, some say, should have actively opposed.)  Such a juxtaposition could get awkward if the candidate notices it, or detrimental to his cause if he doesn’t.

My final issue with campaign signs is that they tend to beget more signs.  No sooner did our candidate’s sign go up then two other candidates, one of whom I’d never met, asked if they, too, could put signs in our yard.  Well, given that they’re running against my candidate, might not this cause a conflict in some cases?  Sure, voters get to choose three candidates for City Council, but what if two, or all three, of these candidates disagree with one another?  How many messaging collisions can one lawn stand?

Meanwhile, the more signs one candidate has, the more the others have to have, and pretty soon there are signs everywhere.  Not just on the main streets, but throughout the neighborhoods.  On Election Day I went out for an early morning bike ride and was hoping to put worldly cares behind me, but there were dozens of signs at the Marin Circle fountain, signs on Spruce Street, signs on Wildcat Canyon Road, and—I kid you not—a guy biking up Claremont Ave with a big campaign sign attached to his bike frame.  (Was the sign on his bike full time, or did he attach it and hit the road to try to capture the elusive but important cyclist vote?) 

It seemed I couldn’t escape.  When I passed Marin Circle again on my way home, a dozen or so volunteers were standing there waving signs around.  A harmless spectacle, but a bit over the top.  I thought of telling them, “If you were dressed up like alligators or bears or something, I’d vote for your candidate.”  To me, the election itself is very important but all these signs are just a distraction.

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Len Raphael November 22, 2012 at 02:57 AM
Having served as treasurer for an Oakland District council race in 2008 and the recent mayoral recall campaign, and then running in the Oakland District 1 race, I look at lawn signs differently. I view lawn signs for local candidates and propositions as a counterbalance to "you can't fight City Hall" inertia. The power of incumbency, machine politics, politically active non-profits (eg. the Sierra Club or Oakland Rising), muni unions, developers make it extraordinarily difficult to change a big small city like Oakland. Typical glossy fold over mailer costing 50 or 60 cents each with postage. +$10,000 per mailing in this Oakland district. How many did you receive from the candidate you voted for? Add to the mailers sent by Chamber of Commerce, Police union, and various factions of the Democratic party. Oakland, unlike Berkeley, is too large for most voters to collect and digest data about the performance of officials or the data to support candidates promises without costly mailers, robocalls, door to door canvassing, and signage. Lawn signs usually do mean that the household took the time to at least talk to a canvasser. It is remarkably hard to get people to place lawn or window signs, at least in Oakland where they don't "want to be a target." That is more effort than most voters will take in a presidential election year when their total bandwidth for politics is filled up with national drama and trying to figure out statewide propositions.
Dixie Jordan November 22, 2012 at 03:28 AM
Nice to have your perspective, thanks!

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