Sign, sign everywhere a sign

Yard signs. The bane of every field organizer at every congressional, senate and presidential campaign in the country. Don’t have enough yard signs for everyone who walks through the door? Clearly the campaign has idiots in charge! At least that’s what you hear from dedicated community activists who nearly universally believe campaigns win or lose because of these plastic pieces of visual pollution.

Even candidates tend to go crazy for these things. I once made some campaign staffers line a particular route to an event with at least a hundred yard signs, lest my candidate go crazy and order the entire campaign to stop doing their jobs and instead focus on putting out more yard signs. (Something he’d done before, mind you. I don’t usually waste staff time on putting up these things.)

In county commission, school board or even state House and Senate races yard signs can and do make a real difference. But in races where voters actually know something about the candidates and don’t make their decision based on name identification and party, yard signs simply don’t vote.

Yet some people still cling to the notion that a good yard sign operation matters more than a field program that actually, you know, talks with voters face to face. From an irate post on Daily Kos:

But out at the Obama campaign office, I got some unwelcome and unexpected news: no signs. Not only no signs, but none expected to arrive any time soon, possibly for as long as five weeks! So dire was the situation, I heard, that volunteers in the office were taking up collections to have their own signs printed.

I began asking around among my online contacts, and heard similar stories from all over the country. Shortages and backlogs in dozens of offices, and in those few where signs were available, people were being asked to pay anywhere from $8 to $20 per sign. That was a new one on me. I’ve never been asked to pay for a yard sign before.

Paying for a yard sign?! You know, this actually sounds like a pretty good idea to me. It means the people who go crazy about yard signs fund the program. Nice. That leaves organizers time to focus on things that actually affect the election, like voter contacts and honks and waves. (OK, honks and waves don’t really affect the vote either, but they’re super fun!)

Also unique to this presidential election, Obama’s team has put a lot of effort into registering voters. The following information is from poll-tracking web site FiveThirtyEight, based on information from The Washington Post:

Obama campaign strategists believe that, with their massive months-long, grinding-it-out-every-day registration plan, that 80 percent of those new registrations would vote for Obama, and that 75% of the newly registered voters will turn out. If 75% of an 80-20 split on 300,000 new registrants turns out, that’s Barack Obama adding 135,000 bonus votes to his total in Virginia alone. Organizers in Obama’s Virginia campaign offices have been sternly instructed to focus on those numbers by spending long, exhausting days recruiting volunteers instead of spending their limited time worrying about whether there are enough yard signs to go around.

Should the Obama campaign really focus on yard signs instead of votes? I think not.

Curious about the access we have to yard signs here in the top battleground state, I called up John McCain’s and Obama’s state headquarters. Lo and behold, Obama’s campaign indeed had yard signs, but are limiting each person to two, and asking for a $5 contribution in exchange. The McCain folks, running a more traditional campaign, also told me they limit two to three signs per person — but by contrast to Obama, the McCain folks didn’t ask for a contribution.

So readers, if I’m way off here please let me know. I’ve worked on a number of campaigns and have never seen an impact from yard signs that comes anywhere near justifying the amount of time and money we put into them. In fact, back in college our entire campus got excited about a guy running for county judge. He had the coolest bright green signs we’d ever seen — he lost by about 20 points.

Colorado Independent’s blogumnist (blogger-columnist) Jeff Bridges has worked in Democratic politics for the last 10 years, serving as communications director for two congressional races in Colorado and two governors races in the Deep South. Bridges also worked as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C., with a focus on military and small-business issues.

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