Signs, signs, everywhere campaign signs
By David Farmer
We are less than three weeks away from one of the most important and contentious elections in history.
At stake: The U.S. presidency, control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the Maine Legislature, school boards, town and city councils and a myriad of local issues that would have significant impact on communities.
People are stressed. Really stressed. The frustration is showing.
And it’s showing where it often does during the last week of political campaigns.
On the lowly — and in some eyes lovely — political yard sign.
As a professional campaign staff member, I’ve taken a blood oath to hate yard signs — to dismiss their effectiveness, to bemoan the strain they place on already-tight campaign budgets, to complain about the time they take (to design, to assemble, to put out, to pick up) away from other important tasks.
I hate them.
But here’s my dirty, little-not-so-secret. This year, I have six in my yard — and I’m trying to track one down for my neighbor down the street who’s running for city council.
Yard signs have been studied to death by political scientists. Mostly, the consensus is that they don’t do any harm, and they might do just a little bit of good. Not much, but not zero either.
I’m also going to stipulate that I believe in low information elections where voters don’t know a lot about the candidates or the issues, political signs in someone’s yard who you know is a ton more effective than a sign stuck in the median at an intersection.
But here’s another fact that is inescapable.
You cannot run a campaign in Maine — and most of the country — without yard signs. Your candidate wants to see their name all over the community. Your donors want yard signs. Your supporters want yard signs. If they don’t see them, they’re convinced you aren’t doing anything to convince voters that your position or candidate is best.
This year, the Maine Democratic Party even had a little fun by flipping the political sign script and placing “Trump/Collins” signs, pairing the two in more Democratic parts of the state.
And as true as the fact that political signs cannot be avoided, they can drive people crazy.
Also, coming as elections do in the fall, you can guarantee that between the time the signs hit the median strip and Election Day, Maine will see a dozen nights with wind gusting over 30 miles per hour, bouts of torrential rain and Halloween — all of which are hell on signs.
Every campaign is convinced they’re being targeted. And some campaigns really are.
Otherwise normal people do dumb and dangerous things.
In Michigan, a building inspector was injured when he tried to remove an illegally placed sign for President Donald Trump. Someone had lined the sign with razor blades. The poor guy got cut up for just doing his job.
A student canvasser for Democrats in Maine was charged with stealing a pro-Trump flag.
I was working on a local campaign in Portland several years ago with a very seasoned campaign professional. This guy is a real pro and has worked on some of the biggest campaigns in the state.
Someone kept taking his referendum sign from his yard. It was driving him nuts. He tried a stake out. He even went so far as to buy a bluetooth tracker to embed in the sign. All to no avail. The master criminal sign thief slipped the trap.
Here’s my advice — earned over the course of many fall campaigns.
One, don’t put all your signs up when they first arrive. Hold some back for a second wave.
Two, don’t take it personally if your sign goes missing. Maybe it was a kid trying to be funny; maybe it was your opponent following through on a secret sign conspiracy. Maybe it was the wind. Don’t worry about it. (Better they’re out stealing signs than talking to voters).
Three: Signs come. Signs go. But the best thing you can do is talk to your neighbors about why the election matters to you.
And four, win or lose, pick up your signs. I judge the character of a campaign not by how many signs they can put out, but by how many they quickly pick up.
David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children.