Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
If you think campaign yard signs are litter on a stick, ask Ben Griffin.
Eight years ago, Griffin zoomed from political unknown to a player in contests for seats on the Nashville Metro Council in Tennessee after two signs bearing his name were placed in a yard near an elementary school. Five incumbents were running. In an online survey, 25 of percent parents whose children attended the school named Griffin as one of their top three choices for the five at-large positions.
But Griffin didn’t exist. He was the creation of Vanderbilt University researchers who wanted to test the effectiveness of yard signs and so created a fictional candidate to see whether signs can influence voters. “I would say we were not absolutely surprised, but we found it pretty impressive that two yard signs could deliver such an effect on people’s opinions,” says Elizabeth Zechmeister, a Vanderbilt political science professor who helped conduct the experiment.
It’s research like this, plus tradition, that explains why Springfield for weeks has been decorated – that’s one word for it – with yard signs promoting candidates in the upcoming April 2 election. And with 334 candidates running for public office in Sangamon County, there is no shortage of signs and strategies for placing them.
From mayor to alderman to Springfield Metropolitan and Exposition Authority board trustee, nearly 140 positions are on the ballot in Sangamon County, and so signs of all colors and one shape, rectangular, have gone up in all sorts of places. Besides yards, there are empty lots and, of course, Signville, aka farmland abutting Stanford Avenue where candidates long have been welcome to place signs. And they do.
One school of thought holds that signs posted on vacant land do no good – candidates should put their advertising in yards so that passersby can see that they have support from real people who, presumably, care about their community. Others say signs in cornfields can’t hurt. Some advise avoiding yards with houses that have peeling paint and other code violations. Others note that we can’t all afford nice houses, and so a sign in a yard, no matter what the house might look like, is better than no sign at all.
“Oh, Jesus,” blurted Mayor Jim Langfelder, brow furrowed, when told that one of his campaign signs is posted at an empty-looking strip mall on North Grand Avenue, with the most prominent feature being a former supermarket that’s been vacant for years. Surviving businesses include a dollar store, a video gambling parlor and a payday loan shop. Not an ideal image for a politician who touts economic development. One day later, a sign touting Frank Lesko for city clerk popped up alongside the mayor’s.
Langfelder’s signs went up weeks after Frank Edwards, his opponent, plastered signs throughout a city still in winter’s grip. “People were getting anxious,” says the mayor, who maintains that six weeks is plenty of time for a candidate’s signs to work whatever magic they might work. If you have them, use them, Edwards figures.
“We just thought, ‘We’ve ordered them, we’ve got them, they’re not doing any good sitting in the garage,’” Edwards says. “The earlier we get them out there, the more people see them.”
“You’ve got to get your name out there”
If Sangamon County has a yard sign king, it’s county auditor Andy Goleman.
Goleman isn’t up for election – he hasn’t been on a ballot since the fall of 2016, when he ran unopposed after being appointed to the auditor’s post the previous year. A year before the election, Goleman spent more than $10,000 on yard signs. It was the biggest yard-sign buy by a politician in Sangamon County since 1999, as far back as the Illinois State Board of Elections database goes.
Ten grand, roughly the amount that Langfelder and Paul Palazzolo combined spent on signs in the 2015 mayoral campaign, buys a lot of cardboard and plastic – 2,500 yard signs and 100 larger ones suitable for high-traffic locations, to be precise. Lacking an opponent, Goleman ended up using 200. He says he got a volume discount. “That’s really why I did it,” he says. “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have bought so many. You never know if you’re going to have an opponent. I just wanted to make sure I had enough.”
As a politician with an easily misspelled name – it’s “Goleman,” not “Goldman” or “Coleman” – the auditor says signs are a must, especially considering that his name, unlike names of the county treasurer or circuit clerk, isn’t on property tax bills or traffic tickets or other ubiquitous paperwork. “My office is not like that – my office is internal,” Goleman says. “You’ve got to get your name out there.”
Lots of politicians agree. State records show that candidates and political committees have spent more than $36 million on signs in the past 20 years, although that total, which includes billboards in addition to yard signs, is a rough approximation. Frank Vala, owner of Valco Awards in Springfield, has collected more than $100,000 for signs during that time period, state records show. Sometimes, Vala says, he hasn’t been paid at all and so has learned the hard way: If an established political party orders signs, send a bill; if it’s Ned Newcomer running as a Bull Moose, collect in advance. His biggest soaking, he says, came in 1998, when Loleta Didrickson didn’t pay after losing the Republican primary for U.S. Senate to Peter Fitzgerald. Vala recalls forgiving a $27,000 debt.
Yard signs, Vala says, aren’t complicated. Focus on the name. Use bold colors with plenty of contrast. And always include a union label, even if it’s so tiny you can’t read it from a foot away. “We’ve had people say, ‘You sure I need it?’” says Vala, who contracts with a Kansas City firm to manufacture signs ordered in Springfield. “I say, ‘No, but one thing’s for sure: If you put it there, you don’t have an enemy.’”
While Vala has his opinions, most candidates, he says, already know what they want when they come to his shop. Some are disappointed in the result. “They usually come with the artwork and the color combination because their wife or their girlfriend or someone said ‘This is what it ought to be,’” Vala says. “And when they see the four-by-eight, they say ‘That doesn’t stand out very good.’”
Signs for Griffin, the fictional candidate, are a classic template. The lettering is both blue and red, which, some pros say, appeals to Democrats and Republicans -- at least one sign company in online advice says that candidates in nonpartisan races should consider red if they’re after GOP voters. Griffin’s sign contained just two words: Ben Griffin. Candidates should remember, Vala advises, that motorists have just a few seconds to absorb a sign. “Make the name biggest and forget the details,” he says. “People don’t remember what you’re running for. They see ‘Frank Vala’: ‘Hell, that name’s familiar -- I’m going to vote for him.’”
It’s tough to prove negatives, but still worth wondering whether yard signs changed the course of Illinois history.
In the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, spent $34,500 on yard signs before the primary. Former attorney general Jim Ryan spent nearly $21,000 on signs. Far behind was Kirk Dillard, who spent $3,200, according to state records.
Dillard finished second to Brady, losing the nomination by 193 votes in a seven-way race – it was one of the closest elections in state history. Brady, a conservative, was widely considered unelectable in the fall and, sure enough, Pat Quinn beat him. It was the first time since Abraham Lincoln was alive that Democrats had won three successive gubernatorial elections. If the GOP had nominated a less-conservative candidate, Quinn might have lost and Bruce Rauner might never have run.
Dillard, a moderate Republican who once worked for Jim Edgar, doesn’t discount the importance of yard signs. “Yard signs are a way of life,” he says. “They help – not as much as some people think they do.” If he’d spent more on yard signs in 2010, Dillard says, he would have had to reduce spending elsewhere, perhaps on television commercials or mailings or Chicago-area billboards.
“I would have loved to have had more yard signs,” Dillard said. “It’s just a matter of limited resources.”
All things being equal and considering the margin, Dillard might have won the 2010 primary if he’d spent more on yard signs without reducing other spending, according to Zeichmeister, the Vanderbilt political science professor, and Jonathan Krasno, a political science professor at Binghamton University in New York state who’s done research showing that signs can help in squeakers but not landslides.
Zeichmeister says that yard signs help most in races where voters don’t have much information about candidates. She cites a recent trip to a wine shop where, not knowing much about wine, she bought a bottle with “LZ” on the label. Those are the initials of her name. “I’m like everybody else,” she says. “We do tend to be drawn to things we’re familiar with.” Without knowing how many votes Dillard would have lost by reducing spending elsewhere, Krasno says, it’s impossible to say whether yard signs would have made a difference. “When the margin is 193 votes, it could have been changed by a hiccup in the morning,” Krasno says.
J. William Roberts, a former Sangamon County state’s attorney and U.S. attorney who keeps track of politics, puts it this way: “As longtime State Rep. J. David Jones once said. ‘I know that half of what I do in campaigning is of little value, I just don’t know which half.”
“Some candidates have egos”
Vala, a Republican, sells signs to any candidate with cash. This election season, he says he’s got two signs at his house, each for a candidate running for office in Leland Grove, where he lives. “People in Leland Grove, they don’t like signs in their neighbor’s yards,” Vala says. “They just don’t like signs, period.”
Vala questions the value of festooning one’s yard with lots of signs. “When you just let anybody and everybody put things up, it just becomes a junkyard,” he says. “I’m talking myself out of business.”
Vala needn’t worry. The popularity of yard signs and other overt forms of political expression has mushroomed over time. Researchers say that the display of signs, campaign bumper stickers and political buttons more than doubled between 1984, when less than 10 percent of the population made beliefs known to the world, and 2008, when one in five Americans either displayed a yard sign, wore a candidate’s button or put a bumper sticker on their car.
Rather than candidates, Todd Makse, a political science professor at Florida International University who’s co-authored a book on campaign yard signs due for publication this spring, focuses on people who display signs and their motives. “Mostly, it’s about people expressing themselves – I think that’s one of our big takeaways,” Makse says. “Signs become this kind of identity marking, both in terms of displaying how people feel and how they see other people. Instead of the guy with the yappy dog, it’s the guy who likes Trump. It’s a label.”
Some results don’t seem surprising. For instance, about 30 percent of people who display campaign yard signs think such signs are eyesores, Makse and his colleagues found; conversely, more than half of people surveyed who post no signs find them ugly. More than 80 percent of sign displayers think campaign yard signs are interesting while slightly more than half of those who don’t post signs say the same thing. Folks who display signs also are more likely to say that they pay attention to signs than those who don’t put up signs.
Both sign displayers and those who keep yards sign-free were consistent on one point: Within a few percentage points, a statistical wash, more than 60 percent of both groups said that campaign yard signs remind them of divisiveness.
“When it comes to viewing signs as a reminder of divisiveness…there is no difference between displayers and non-displayers – indeed, the symbolism of the signs may be the one constant across individuals,” Makse and his fellow researchers write.
The prevalence of signs makes a difference. Makse and his research team found that people who live in neighborhoods where signs are plentiful are more likely to find them informative and less likely to ignore them than people who live in neighborhoods with few or no signs. Nearly one in four believe campaign signs are “a typical part of the neighborhood culture,” the researchers found, while nearly one in five say they live where signs are either banned by formal rules or negatively viewed by residents. Fewer than one in four respondents believed signs influence voters, with nearly 60 percent open to the possibility that signs might make up minds.
Campaign signs can provoke emotions. One-third of respondents to a survey by Makse’s team said that signs make them proud, 26 percent said signs make them angry and nearly 20 percent reported that signs make them anxious, with folks who display signs more likely to get emotional than people who do not.
Signs also provoke feelings in candidates.
Dillard says signs can give a psychological advantage. “It gives the candidates the false impression that they have more support than they do to see yard signs,” he says. “It may surprise you: Some candidates have egos.”
The effect, Dillard says, isn’t limited to signs in yards. He recalls a candidate whom he won’t identify who told a campaign manager that he wanted a $6,000 billboard erected alongside a Chicago expressway. “The campaign manager is arguing with the candidate: ‘For $6,000, I can do a lot of things,’” Dillard says. “The candidate told the campaign manager, ‘Look, when I’m weary and down, it pumps me up to work more hours each day to see that billboard on the Kennedy Expressway.’ The campaign manager said, ‘If if makes you work harder or go to more doors, I’ll buy it.’ That’s a true story.”
While some veteran campaign strategists discount them, yard signs won’t go away because candidates get attached, Makse and his fellow researchers write. Consider a Democratic political operative who told researchers that candidates, even smart ones with well-financed television campaigns and digital strategies and lots of direct mailings, demand signs. “But I just see my opponents’ signs everywhere!” researchers write in the upcoming book, recalling what the operative told them about candidates’ demands for yard signs. “We’ve got to get some signs out!” Researchers concluded that candidates, in their emotional responses to signs, aren’t much different than their supporters.
“The logic of using signs to build name recognition plays second fiddle in the visceral reactions that give signs an outsized presence in the minds of people who are paying attention,” researchers wrote.
And when the party’s over…
In Peoria, supporters of a $35 million advisory referendum to improve the city’s libraries raised $90,000 in 2007 and spent 10 percent of the kitty on yard signs. The referendum passed by 72 percent. It was the largest margin of victory for any library referendum in state history, says library spokeswoman Trisha Noack, who credits yard signs. Signs, she says, are more personal than television or radio ads.
“We just kept printing them,” Noack recalls. “Having them in neighborhoods and people’s yards made a difference – it encouraged one-on-one conversations. … Word of mouth and people talking to other people is so important.”
In Springfield, Lakeisha Purchase, candidate for alderman in Ward 5, got an early start, striving to get signs up before snows came and the ground froze. Signs, she says, are effective in informing people who’s running. “The ‘Purchase’ stands out – that’s a unique last name that not a lot of people know,” she says of her signs. “People may forget ‘Lakeisha,’ but they will not forget ‘Purchase.’”
Andrew Proctor, the incumbent, says signs build momentum. He says he knocks on doors even if a sign for his opponent is in the yard – there’s always a chance for a split household. He says he’s lost count, but he’s “well into the hundreds” when it comes to sign volume.
Purchase complains that some of her signs have disappeared, and they aren’t cheap. Sign theft isn’t unprecedented. Four years ago, Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen recalls, 150 signs from his campaign and several others disappeared from a neighborhood. Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin cautions against jumping to conclusions. Sometimes, he says, voters shift allegiances, so it’s best to call the opposing campaign to make sure that a supporter hasn’t switched sides and removed a sign that’s no longer wanted.
Ultimately, campaigns end, politicians seek other offices and once-precious signs have no purpose. What then?
Goleman, the county auditor, has plenty of signs from his days as a county board member stashed in his garage, next to the ones he didn’t use in his first campaign for county auditor. Theilen, who can’t run for re-election due to term limits, has found that campaign signs make a great floor for his doghouse. Lesko, the city clerk who owns rental property, has used campaign signs to board up windows. While doorbelling this year, Proctor says he encountered a supporter who was using one of his old signs to block a window so an indoor cat couldn’t escape.
“That’s great,” he says.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.