Okay, confession time: I hate yard signs.
I’ve worked on dozens of political campaigns: local, statewide and even presidential races. In every campaign, there was one thing that inevitably wasted more time and energy than anything else: yard signs.
Even seasoned, experienced political candidates who know better still end up wasting their time on yard signs year after year. I see it all the time; once opponents start putting up signs, candidates and their volunteers want to focus on nothing else.
Valuable time that could be spent on door-to-door efforts is instead wasted on trying to find more yard sign locations. Money that could be used for direct mail is thrown away on more useless signs and wickets. Campaign meetings that should be focused on effective organization are fiddled away discussing how many signs opponents have up and where they are putting them.
In my own city a number of years ago, I recall a mayoral candidate bragging endlessly about how many signs her campaign had put up. She was right, too; hundreds of her signs were planted in yards across the city. She and her volunteers spent the vast majority of their time focused on finding yard sign locations, and those signs bloomed everywhere like tacky political flowers.
You can guess the ending to that story: the candidate ended up losing handily to an opponent who, instead focusing on yard signs, focused on door-to-door campaigning and direct mail. When all was said and done, she actually ended up having far more yard signs across the city than votes in the election. She was completely flummoxed that any campaign with so many yard signs could possibly lose.
The myth that yard signs win elections is often perpetuated by the tactics of incumbent candidates who win in spite of, not because of, all the yard signs their volunteers put out. First-time candidates see the many signs that are erected by well-known incumbents, and they understandably think it’s the keystone of a successful campaign.
The reality, though, is that those well-known incumbents would probably win their races even if they put out only a handful of signs. That’s just the way they’ve always done it, though . . . so they continue doing it that way. And as a result, new candidates are left with the impression that the first – and last – thing they should focus on is yard signs.
One of my favorite pieces of advice about yard signs comes from a councilperson in my city who has never lost a local race, in spite of being challenged by many well-funded opponents. “There are only two reasons why you need to put up yard signs,” she told me. “One is to encourage your supporters, and the other is to scare your opponents.”