Campaign season means signs are all around us

Campaign signs can quickly get out of hand. (PHOTO: Screenshot from amusing video by Ryan Jackson of the Edmonton Star)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Someone just posted a campaign sign down the road. Well, there goes the neighborhood.

This sentiment now spreads across Northern Minnesota’s tumultuous political environment. A political cycle defined by white hot rage now enters a new phase: paranoia that the other side is messing with your signs.

I’ve worked in journalism and I’ve managed political campaigns. As a result, I’ve spent an alarming portion of my finite life force fielding questions, requests and complaints about campaign signs.

“The [other side] stole my sign!”

How do you know?

“It’s gone!”

Substitute the words “hair,” “youth,” or “money” for the word “sign,” and you see the fallacy.

Experience tells me what happens to most missing campaign signs. Public works crews pick up the lion’s share because they’re posted in the right-of-ways or on government property. In other cases, overzealous teens or unaffiliated cranks actually do steal signs, but almost never on behalf of opposing campaigns. Ceramic garden gnomes face similar peril.

Every once in a while you hear about a candidate who flips their lid and goes on a sign raid, but this is rare. It tends to accompany other behaviors that ensure this person doesn’t last long in politics.

One time when I lived in town I noticed that holes had begun to appear in a campaign sign that I posted in my yard. “Vandals!” I cried. “I shan’t be swayed by this base intimidation!”

Then a few days later I saw a bird fly directly into the same sign, plunging its sharp beak into the soft corrugated plastic. Those were beak holes. I don’t know if all birds are Republicans, but that bird certainly was.

You might rightly wonder whether these signs make a difference. Isn’t this sign drama is just a necessary side effect of representative democracy?

This gets to the age-old debate over yard signs in politics. Candidates and their most strident supporters love campaign signs. Why wouldn’t they? Have you seen them? They have the candidate’s NAME on them and PRETTY COLORS. The new ones even have their PICTURE. Every time you see one you feel like you’re WINNING.

But campaign professionals, who dedicate hundreds of hours to distributing and maintaining the infernal things, find them to be nothing but trouble. Direct contact with voters is the single best strategy to persuade people to vote and to support your candidate.

So who’s right? That’s at the heart of a 2015 Philip Bump story in the Washington Post that made the rounds again recently.

Columbia University professor Donald Green and fellow researchers took a look at the effectiveness of campaign lawn signs in the results of elections in several locations during the 2014 election. It was the first research of its kind.

What they found was that campaign yard signs do improve vote shares for their candidates, but only in the smallest way. Signs help boost percentages by just over 1 percent, roughly the same as direct mail (a subject for another day). In other words, most races aren’t determined by the presence of campaign signs, even though they demand so much attention.

For campaign sign proponents, however, 1.2 percent is just enough reason to keep going. To quote Jim Carrey’s Lloyd from “Dumb and Dumber”: “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”

I used to feel differently about campaign signs. When I lived in town I honestly believed that putting a sign in my yard just might tilt the delicate balance of American democracy toward my way of thinking.

Later, I moved down a long dirt road in Balsam Township, bringing my sign-happy ways with me. But after just one election season I quickly realized that the only people who saw my signs were relatives, delivery drivers and the tax assessor. And if there’s a group of people who carry around immovable views on politics it’s relatives, delivery drivers and tax assessors.

So I didn’t put up any signs in 2016. I probably never will again. I collected a few from the dump as political oddities, but that’s really all they are to me at this point.

A few years ago, I met with some Swedish journalists in Hibbing during an election season. They were surprised by all the campaign signs dotting the yards of our fair town. They wondered how we could get along amid such visible disagreement.

Of course the answer is “we don’t,” but I wasn’t going to tell our guests that. Nevertheless, I was curious how campaigns looked back in Sweden. Do people put out yard signs?

Her answer was short and sweet.

“We don’t. We just vote, and then it’s done.”

Crazy foreigners.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 29, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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