Could Campaign Signs Soon Become a Thing of The Past?
August 19, 2016
The days when some voters scan their ballot in the election booth, conclude “that guy sounds familiar,” and plunk down a vote for a candidate-in-name-only may soon be fading. Increasingly, political consultants and veteran campaign managers tell their clients—their candidates—to stop spending so much money on campaign signs which often have relatively little impact on their election race.
A few decades ago, campaign signs poked into the ground on residential lawns and hammered into place outside of a business were viewed as a cheap and efficient method of quickly boosting a candidate’s name identification. The number of signs deployed was often declared as a measurement of a contender’s strength.
But the axiom “signs don’t vote” started to take hold among political pros more than a decade ago. In 2016, political consultants routinely wrestle with their candidate as the manager makes the case that signs should constitute only a small portion of their campaign budget – not more than 10 percent.
Joe DiSano of Lansing-based DiSano Strategies jokes that he would like to include a clause in every client’s campaign contract that says the candidate cannot discuss sign usage. “It provides an initial burst of name ID, but it’s like a ‘sugar high’ – it quickly fades,” DiSano said.
Any sweaty, worn-out candidate plodding from one house to the next in the summer heat—if he or she is worth their salt—knows that door-to-door campaigning is the ultimate means of winning an election. Mailed campaign literature is a close second. Signs are no substitute.
Yet, the political pros offer horror stories about candidates who want a wealth of signs and billboards deployed so he or she can see their name, in large text, spread throughout the community. A large photo of the candidate included on each placard – a questionable practice in many cases – is a frequent demand. In some cases, the candidate’s anxiety-ridden spouse insists on more roadside signs. Supporters, and especially campaign contributors, expect to see their candidate’s name displayed prominently.
“The candidate’s biggest opponent is not a name on the ballot, it’s the candidate’s own ego,” said former state representative Leon Drolet who, for a third separate time, appears to again be on his way to winning a seat on the Macomb County Board of Commissioners after a victory in the Aug. 2 primary. “Candidates want to drive around and see their name all over the place.”
A political veteran, Drolet mostly shuns signs and instead relies upon probably the most unusual roadside campaign prop in Michigan – a 9-foot-high by 14-foot-long fiberglass pink pig emblazoned with an anti-tax catchphrase that says, “Cut Government Pork.” Drolet said the pig, known as “Mr. Perks,” inherited from his former boss, ex-Sen. Dave Jaye, stands out from the clutter of standard signs and offers a reinforcing campaign message, not just a name.
Not too many candidates for state and local office are ready to follow suit and deploy pig-shaped markers along the highway. But the days of the typical square paper message board may be numbered. One of DiSano’s clients, Tom Lenard, who seeks election to the Delhi Township board in suburban Lansing, decided to forego signs altogether in the fall election and invest all of his limited budget in direct-mail literature.
Several political science studies in recent years concluded that signs provide a negligible boost to a candidate and that they are a questionable investment when used beyond a supplemental role. Still, at the same time some candidates in urban and suburban areas have taken a step in a different direction, paying large sums of money to put their name in lights. Today, huge electronic billboards touting candidates on heavily-traveled freeways are now commonplace.
In other cases, candidates plaster a signboard on the side of a truck with letters two or three feet tall promoting their name. The only factor that’s missing is a 1960s-style bullhorn blasting an election sales pitch as the vehicle travels down a main street.
But in the era of 21st Century campaigning, signs that merely emblazon a name on a billboard are “a waste of time and money,” said Jamie Roe of Grand River Strategies in Lansing. The “sign ghettos”–clusters of competing placards bunched together in a vacant lot–represent an especially ineffective means of securing votes, he added.
“Signs that don’t have a message are worthless. Almost everybody who runs for office gets hung up on signs,” said Roe, who engineered the 10th Congressional District win by Republican Paul Mitchell in this month’s primary.
The former longtime chief of staff and campaign manager for Congresswoman Candice Miller, Roe called Drolet’s effort a “textbook campaign” that should serve as a lesson to all candidates seeking local office. The Drolet team relied almost entirely on door-knocking and mailed literature while his opponent, an incumbent Republican commissioner, spent much of his money on numerous billboards that simply said, “Sabatini for County Commissioner.”
In some parts of the state, the number of campaign signs has noticeably diminished over the past several election cycles. But in small towns and rural areas, the story is a bit different, as defenders of street signs and yard placards say they still establish a loyalty factor. For example, if Joe’s Hardware puts a sign in the window for Rep. John Smith and Joe is well-respected around town, his show of support for Smith could influence dozens or hundreds of votes.
But that Norman Rockwell version of American politics is fading. More often than not, a candidate places a 2 x 8 foot sign along the edges of a lot line of the corner gas station, among the weeds, without seeking the merchant’s permission – or support.
While campaign signs are not expected to disappear any time soon, the times are changing. Many of those cheap, cardboard placards end up in a Dumpster within 24 hours of the final returns arriving on Election Night. Campaign consultants now know that a candidate with a name – not a message – is increasingly doomed to the trash heap of outdated election strategy.
A freelance writer from Macomb County, was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.