Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: What If …?

Nuts & Bolts—Inside a Democratic campaign: What If …?

Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns or explain issues that impact our party.

A few weeks ago, I was part of a series of conference calls involving campaign finance directors, discussing what they needed to make campaigns function correctly. There are some requirements you can’t avoid. This includes printed handouts for door-to-door canvassing, digital advertising, and, depending on the level of the race, television. However, as every single campaign finance director pointed out, there is one expenditure that they truly hate and yet can’t seem to avoid. Yard signs and sending tons and tons of mail to voters. Both can be incredibly expensive, and their effectiveness is more questionable as time goes on. I will take on mail in the next What If…?, but let’s talk about yard signs today.

Yard signs do not vote.

For more than two decades, I have heard this mantra. Yard signs don’t vote, and they are a waste of campaign resources. Stop using them. In fact, for the most part, I have agreed with this, citing the fact they are yard clutter and only exist in the yards of people who are guaranteed to vote for you anyway, so who exactly are you influencing? Especially in streets with low traffic. The signs are small, and cars that move by them don’t often catch them, and some are so poorly designed you couldn’t read them if you wanted to at the posted speed limit.

Slowly, however, we’ve built up some data that is making me rethink the practicality and use of yard signage. 

From Politico 2015:

Four randomized field experiments in a study by lead author Donald Green of Columbia University and several others found that lawn signs increase voter share by 1.7 percentage points on average, a positive increase, but not a large one.

“It appears that signs typically have a modest effect on advertising candidates’ vote shares — an effect that is probably greater than zero but unlikely to be large enough to alter the outcome of a contest that would otherwise be decided by more than a few percentage points,” the researchers wrote.

The last paragraph helped inform my argument and the argument of others: 1.7% isn’t enough to matter. Well… What If… ? you looked more and more at local elections where the margins are razor-thin. A victory can be had by one vote, as occurred in my home county, Johnson County, Kansas, or a dead tie determined by a coin flip. I’ve seen both happen. Would 1.7% be a small margin then? Absolutely not. 1.7% would be a difference that would change a race. Matt Compton wrote a detailed breakdown of the potential benefits of yard signs in 2020, citing his own campaign experience.

Now, keeping that in mind, how do we change the way we think about this? The campaign finance directors are absolutely right in the fact the expense is large for the benefit. They struggle to provide them at the current cost, and the ongoing fights over signs—“Someone stole my sign,” “My sign was vandalized”—can bring real headaches to the campaign. 

A small campaign can have a real hassle maintaining, printing, issuing, and planting signs, and the ongoing cost can be prohibitive. Importantly, Democratic campaigns need to make sure they use a unionized print shop that will provide the union seal on all of their work, whether mailers or signs, to show a candidate’s support for and solidarity with our union workers. Finding union print shops has become more difficult as time has gone on, but they are there, and supporting them means something.

How do we take the trouble and turn it into a positive? How can campaign finance directors feel better about this expense? There are ways to lower costs and to help candidates. Let’s talk about the What If.. of how.

  • Most yard signs require stakes. These go inside of corrugated, bagged, or printed signs to hold them in place and allow you to push them into a yard. It is surprising how many of these stakes are thrown away after an election. As a result, campaigns keep buying over and over this resource. Not only is it a waste of campaign funds, it isn’t great for our landfills. Returning these to a county party to hold onto allows it to be part of a county resource for most candidates, lowering their cost — even if it is just by a small amount. While the stakes are normally not expensive, the shipping can be if you don’t have a local printer. Save money where you can.
  • Signage needs to be offset with a contribution or a commitment. For years, campaigns have tried to get voters to buy signs to help lower their expenses. This works some of the time, but certainly not all, and the inconsistency can create problems. Some voters will cry foul and say their support alone and yard have value or any other claim. Offer a choice: if you can’t pay for a sign, agree to sign up now for a canvass of your neighborhood or schedule a time to phone bank. While this doesn’t redeem the cost to a campaign, it does provide them more a resource that can be even more valuable — people power.
  • Fancy doesn’t matter. Stop worrying about bright colors and photos. They only make a difference if you are trying to annoy an opponent and have lots of campaign funds to spend. Instead, focus on readability. This generally means one color signage—often blue on a white background, black on a white background, or something similar. Doing so cuts the expense and makes it easier for people to read what you are saying. Don’t spend a bundle if you don’t want to spend a bundle.

The final What if…? is this: Campaign finance directors have a challenging and tedious job. They sit with candidates in a room, calling donors to raise money. They help manage the expenditures in small and midsized campaigns. They are often responsible for the decision-making process, which determines how much money they raise compared to future funds they have to spend. Campaign finance directors don’t often get the praise and credit they deserve for the difficult and, at times, infuriating work they have to do. When you find a campaign is debating over any strategy that has an expense attached, and you disagree with a decision, step back and try to understand that not every decision is one that even the finance director wants. It is the decision that a campaign has to make as a team, and it considers many factors—including money. If you feel a campaign isn’t doing everything you expect it to do, discuss it, but remember to listen.

The only other universal comment I hear is this: It is easy for the Democratic faithful to blame campaigns for not having enough signs or spending enough money. Try putting into perspective the job campaigns are trying to do to accomplish exactly those things. They want to win just as much as you do; let them feel your support. It makes their day-to-day lives a little bit easier.

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