Adored by candidates, the dreaded campaign yard sign appears to be less in demand this season

Published October 21 2016

The inundation of campaign yard signs seems to be lighter than in past presidential election years. And it took longer for the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton signs to start appearing.

Chalk it up to most voters disliking the major presidential nominees too much to want to boast about their choice.

Some residents of the biggest battleground region of the biggest battleground state also are wary of inflaming passions more than they already are. In this bitterly divided political climate, planting a Clinton sign can be viewed as flipping your middle finger to a neighbor with a Trump sign, and vice versa.

"The reason I haven't put out any signs or stickers is because I don't want to get my house egged or my car keyed,'' said Scott Tielemans, a Tampa Republican, explaining why he opted against planting a Trump sign in his yard.

Fellow Tampa Republican Christine Bamberger agreed: "People are so reluctant to show their hands because they don't want retribution. People are keeping their thoughts to themselves."

But here's a little secret among campaign professionals: Most of them think campaign yard signs -— especially in high profile races — are both an aggravating pain in the neck and more or less useless in terms of delivering votes.

Yet, candidates fixate on them.

"Yard signs matter — to the candidate's family members, friends and casual advisers who are constantly in the candidate's ear," quipped Republican consultant Brian Burgess of Tallahassee. "They are also one measurement of a campaign's organizational strength. Do they actually sway voters? No."

"Yard signs are effective to the extent that they keep your candidate happy and performing well," said Republican consultant Kirsten Dougherty of Washington, dismissing their effectiveness in winning votes.

Republican consultant Nick Hansen of St. Petersburg recalls a political mentor telling him it's not a campaign without yard signs. "But what he meant to say was the candidate will never think it's a real campaign unless you have yard signs and talk about yard signs every day, and obsess about placement of yard signs," Hansen said. "It doesn't matter that you just spent 500,000 on a television commercial and polling and voter outreach. The conversation will always come back to a $2.50 piece of corrugated plastic."

Yard sign tensions can escalate quickly. Every year, countless campaign workers waste far too much time trying to catch yard sign thieves or vandals. In September, state Rep. Keith Perry of Gainesville had to apologize after being caught on video striking another man for removing a large Perry sign from a someone's property.

One academic study in 2015 concluded lawn signs on average increase vote share by 1.7 percentage points. The Tampa Bay Times recently surveyed more than 170 veterans of Florida politics, and nearly six in 10 said they are not effective. Many suggested they are matter more in local races with little known candidates.

No modern campaign had a better handle on what persuades and motivates voters than Barack Obama's campaigns. His campaign leaders had no use for yard signs except as something to sell to eager supporters.

But they sometimes failed to appreciate how volunteers and supporters can become consumed by yard signs, too.

Steve Schale said yard sign hand-wringing and headaches reached such a peak when he ran Obama's 2008 Florida campaign that he "went completely rogue" and managed to print hundreds of thousands of yard signs.

"We had kids spending half their day dealing with yard sign politics rather than registering and organizing voters," Schale groaned.

Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes

     
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