’Tis the season when the leaves float down, and the campaign signs sprout up. It’s also the season when the partisans of various political candidates agonize waaaay too much over who has more lawn signs. In fact some campaigns think of little else but their signs—at the expense of the actual work of winning over voters.
The annual sign routine is predictable:
- Candidate Joe gets his signs up first, causing the supporters of Candidate Jane to freak out.
- Jane overcompensates by trying to put up twice as many signs as Joe, escalating the sign wars.
- Now it’s Joe’s supporters’ turn to freak out, so Joe orders another 100 signs to catch up, making Joe and Jane roughly even.
- Both teams suddenly realize that if they put TWO signs on each property, it looks like they have double the support! Then they realize that three is better than two. And four is better than three. (Five, however, makes the property owner look crazy.)
- Jane’s cousin gets caught with a trunkload of stolen Joe signs, creating a bunch of bad publicity for Jane.
- Meanwhile, the local zoning enforcement officer (a member of Jane’s campaign committee) decides to enforce a little-known local law, requiring Joe to take down his signs because they are 3.25 inches too tall.
- The ACLU steps in, with a letter (correctly) denouncing the local sign ordinance as un-Constitutional; the ZEO backs off; Joe gets most of his signs back up.
- After the first week of this annual ritual, voters stop even seeing the signs, as they become just another feature of the roadscape.
- All of this distracts from the mechanics of wooing voters, turning them out to the polls, and getting elected.
Finally, after months of sign wars, your local election occurs. The votes are tallied. Turns out that having more signs had nothing to do with who actually won. The outcome could be predicted as reliably with a coin flip. Because no one—well, almost no one—decides which candidate to support because of a sign.
People understandably love to count election signs, since they’re often the only visible portion of a local campaign. (Debates, if any, are usually poorly-attended, with mainly the inner circles of each candidate attending.)
But signs tell you virtually nothing about a campaign, except maybe which side assigned a more obsessive-compulsive operative to putting wax-coated cardboard placards all over town. I’ve seen plenty of elections around here—for example, in Claverack, Hudson and Taghkanic—where the candidate with more signs lost, sometimes by a lot.
A few people put up signs because they actually feel strongly about a candidate. But rarely does more than a tiny sliver of the voting public actually display signs for either side. Some are apathetic. A few don’t want to have an argument with their neighbor. Others simply want their allegiances to remain a private matter, especially in the event that the other team wins, and appoints a new tax assessor.
Still it is almost impossible for a candidate’s friends and core supporters to turn off the sign hysteria. In the minds eye, if you see three signs for Joe in a given neighborhood, it is natural to conclude that “everyone” in that neighborhood supports Joe, though only 3 out of 30 houses are sporting his colors.
Signs also go up for a host of reasons that have little to do with popularity. They go up first on the lawns or houses of relatives of candidates, and their allied commiteemen. Then they go up because someone didn’t want to say “no” to an operative with a supervisory role over that person’s job. They go up on certain attorneys’ and insurance agents’ houses who depend on municipal or County work, even if they plan to vote for the other side. And so on.
So long as both sides have a reasonable presence on the street, the exact tally of who’s ahead in the Sign Wars tells you nothing. The only time to freak out about signs is if the only sign up for your candidate is on his own house. Then you might worry, as that absence probably reflects a much larger problem of organization that goes far beyond getting signs printed and distributed. On the other hand, your candidate may be lullling the other side into complacency, as s/he diligently and quietly knocks on the door of every single local household, building a giant electoral advantage which only becomes visible on Election Day.
Sure, once in a while someone comes up with a truly clever or winning sign design which truly captures voters’ imaginations and gives them some slight advantage. That happens maybe once in a lifetime, and usually is a symptom of the candidate’s prowess, not its cause. As one consultant put it:
Lawn signs are another case where more is less as candidates try to outdo each other to see who can plaster a neighborhood with the most signs. It’s a stalemate of mutually assured destruction: Competing campaigns drain their budgets as they litter the landscape with a blurry sea of colorful cardboard largely ignored by commuters and other passersby.
And what about our neighbors who actually choose to post political lawn signs in their front yard? I say this: Free speech is awesome, but we already know who you vote for, and you’re not changing anyone’s mind. Let it go.
So wherever you may live, please don’t get too worked up about who appears to have more signs. If you care about a candidate, badgering them about the other guy’s signs does not help. Instead, organize an event at your home, or make calls on their behalf to voters, or write a personal letter to your five best friends, urging them to join you in voting for your candidate.
In a local election, the only reliable sign that your team may win is that John or Jane isn’t investing too much of their limited money, time and thoughts on campaign signs.