Do political yard signs matter in St. Petersburg's mayoral election?
ST. PETERSBURG — Ah, the political yard sign. Usually decked out in some combination of red, white and blue. Sometimes it has a catchy slogan. As Election Day approaches, the signs sprout like mushrooms after a hard rain. After the election, they wilt slowly, lingering for months, a careworn reminder of victory or defeat.
As St. Petersburg’s mayoral election picks up speed (it’s already shattered fundraising records), the humble yard sign has entered the political discourse via its successor: social media.
Bill Bucolo, a Democratic activist and supporter of Mayor Rick Kriseman, tweeted a FaceBook post Monday where he lamented what he saw as a lack of enthusiasm for yard signs supporting the Kriseman campaign.
But Kriseman can’t actually distribute yard signs until Thursday, when the mayor kicks of a spate of campaign events including filing his official qualifying paperwork at City Hall.
His campaign said they’ll eventually start handing out yard signs, but campaign officials said they’re focusing their efforts on face-to-face interaction. They believe that’s more likely to move the needle among potential voters.
“Our campaign is building the largest grassroots organization ever in a St. Pete mayoral race," wrote Jacob Smith, Kriseman’s campaign manager, in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "From day one, we have prioritized empowering our supporters to talk to their neighbors about the issues that matter most to them and the stakes in this election.
"We already have over 250 enthusiastic supporters who have pledged to volunteer to talk to their neighbors about how we can move St. Pete forward together.”
So how many Kriseman yard signs are on the way?
“More than zero,” quipped Smith in another email.
Meanwhile, former mayor Rick Baker’s campaign has already planted 1,100 yard signs around the city.
Baker campaign Director Nick Hansen said demand is so strong for the signs that on Wednesday he placed an order for 1,500 more signs.
Hansen, who has run GOP campaigns for a dozen years, said he’s never seen the demand for yard signs that Baker’s candidacy has generated.
And they work, he said.
“Yard signs just don’t manifest themselves," Hansen said. "They’re people talking to people. They want their neighbors to know who they support. A lot of folks look to other folks to decide who to vote for.”
Susan McGrath, the chairwoman of the county Democratic party, is skeptical of that argument. She said studies show yard signs have little effect on the vote. Direct voter contact is more important, she said in a Twitter exchange with a Times reporter.
“Voters will have a clear choice,” said McGrath, who is backing Kriseman.
The Sunshine City does have a recent test case of the power of political yard signs. In 2013, mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford’s campaign and supporters carpeted the city, especially Midtown, with yard signs. At the time, many observers took that display as a sign of her political strength.
Ford ended up finishing third in the primary to then-mayor Bill Foster and the eventual winner, Kriseman.
Still, Hansen maintained that yard signs are an important campaign tool.
“I can’t imagine a functional campaign that doesn’t reward supporters with yard signs,” he said.
It's just one of many debates the city will have during this contentious race. On Facebook, one Kriseman supporter suggested an environmentally friendly solution for the mayor’s supporters: supporters could post a virtual yard sign in the form of a cover photo on their media pages platforms.
"A profile picture size virtual 'yard sign!'" read Lucinda Johnston's post. "No waste and no vandalism. Who's going first?"