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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Campaign Lawn Signs: What you can learn from them

Uploaded: Sep 30, 2014
To people who haven't worked in a political campaign, lawn signs may seem to be little more than visual clutter. But once you know what to look for, they can tell you a lot about the various campaigns.

First, recognize that the typical serious campaign puts significant thought and effort into the design and deployment of campaign signs, so it is not unreasonable to draw inferences about the candidate and the campaign. I have found that the design of the sign gives some reliable hints about the personality of the candidate. However, it is not in my nature to publicly engage in psycho-babble, and since I am working on one candidate's campaign, that gives me further reason to avoid this.
Note: Speculative interpretations of the design of signs is off-topic here. I have mentioned it only so that you can think about it for yourself.

The second inference you can draw from the sign is how well it performs its goal of being visible and readable to passers-by. For example, a lawn sign that is yellow with white text indicates a candidate and campaign that is lackadaisical about details: They hadn't bothered with the simplest of test, that is, printing a (reduced) version using a home computer, walking it outside and taking a few steps back.

Next, realize that lawn signs have two basic audiences. The first audience are the people who know the person displaying the sign. It can be an invitation for neighbors to talk to that person, or those friends and neighbors may simply cruise by the house and use the signs as recommendations of whom to vote for.

The second audience is miscellaneous passers-by, and what follows here focuses on what those passers-by can infer from those lawn signs. During the early stages of the campaign, lawn signs help establish who are the serious candidates: The low filing fee ($25) and signature requirement (25) makes it easy for anyone to be a candidate. If a candidate hasn't deployed a noticeable number of lawn signs by late September, you can infer that the candidate is either not making a serious effort or can't get his candidacy taken seriously by others. What chance does a candidate have of being effective on Council or the School Board if s/he can't convince a modest number of people to stick a lawn sign in their front yards?

After the earliest stages of the campaign, the number and distribution of lawn signs implies various things about the candidates. There are three basic ways that a lawn sign winds up in someone's front yard:
1. The resident attends a candidate's event and is impressed enough with that candidate to take a sign and install it.
2. The resident has learned about the candidate and gone to the website and requested a sign.
3. Rather than requesting or volunteering, the resident has been asked to install the sign. For example, members of the campaign team may ask their non-political friends to install signs, or the campaign may approach residents at high-visibility locations to install signs.

The third muddles (confounds) the utility of lawn signs as a indicator of the level of support for a candidate. But it is a tactic with some risks?if a passer-by asks the resident why he supports that candidate and gets a non-answer, that undermines the credibility of all the other lawn signs for that candidate.

In addition to looking how many signs a candidate has deployed, look at where they are deployed. This is a very rough indication of the candidate's network. It is to be expected that candidates will have stronger networks in some sections of town than others. What you are looking for during the campaign is whether they are reaching out into those other neighborhoods. On the flip side, residents can interpret the paucity of campaign signs in their neighborhood as an opportunity: Serious candidates are eager to introduce themselves into such areas. In the old days, candidates would introduce themselves going door-to-door, and many of them still do some of that. However, the current preferred way to for candidates to meet residents is at small gatherings at people's homes, where the resident invites one or more candidates and their neighbors. These meet-and-greet events are commonly called "coffees", to emphasis that the host need not provide substantial refreshments, although some hosts do (for example, wine and cheese parties).

If you decide that you want to host one of these events, the candidates' websites (below) have contact information. Be aware that these coffees occupy a large part of the candidates' schedules and as Election Day gets closer, it becomes harder to get on the schedule.

I look not only at the signs in my neighborhood, but in other neighborhoods as well. Palo Alto has many, many different neighborhoods that have very different circumstance and problems. The "north-south divide" is but a coarse expression of the problem. There are neighborhoods that many officials and other influential people don't remember as being in Palo Alto (or maybe they never knew). For the curious, I am not going to enumerate them?it will make more of a lasting impression if you have to find them on a map.

Part of the current conflict in City politics is that City Hall has had too many members of Council and the appointed Boards and Commissions who have lacked a geographically diverse network. One sees this in their forgetting that all of Palo Alto isn't like the immediate neighborhood they live in, but especially in the difficulty a few have giving credence to what they are being told about problems in other neighborhoods.

The geographic distribution of lawn signs is a poor proxy for the real question you want answered, but I don't know of a better one. Suggestions anyone? Please no top-of-the-head responses. I am looking for well-considered advice for the readers.

Aside: To answer the obvious question of whether lawn signs function as traditional advertising, creating name (brand) recognition, and having enough "impressions" that people come to think of the product (candidate) as a safe choice. I don't know, and I don't know of anyone who has an educated guess. There is enough anecdotal evidence to know that this is non-negligible. The surveys that I know of show this effect to be small, but those results are not reliable. First, those surveys suffer from selection bias: People who engage in this behavior are probably less likely to respond to the survey. Second, the surveys involve self-reporting, which under-counts effects that are largely unconscious or subtle.

APPENDIX: Campaign Websites (alphabetically)

Palo Alto City Council
?Tom DuBois
?Eric Filseth
?John Fredrich
?Karen Holman
?A. C. Johnston
?Lydia Kou
?Seelan Reddy
?Greg Scharff
?Nancy Shepherd
?Cory Wolbach
?Mark Weiss (part of his general blogging site)

Unaware of website for Wayne Douglass.

Palo Alto Unified School District
?Jay Blas Jacob Cabrera
?Gina Dalma
?Ken Dauber
?Catherine Crystal Foster
?Terry Godfrey

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 30, 2014 at 5:08 pm

My personal feeling is that these signs are a blight on the neighborhood, but please wait before dismissing my post and deleting.

These flimsy signs serve a purpose in that they do get name recognition out when there is a name. But, what service can it be when they say YES on XYZ, or NO on 7,8,9? Obviously candidates want to get their names out but the Yes and No signs are different. I will accept that it does show that there is XYZ or 789, and very little else.

Yes, they do provide you with some idea of who the residents of the home are and where their loyalties lie, but sometimes it does open them up to possible repercussions when we have controversial issues, Prop 8 comes to mind.

Having visited other countries in election time when every street lamp and utilities pole is littered with election posters from top to bottom, but yet there are no signs on personal property, there is another way of doing it. But I do know that in countries where this is done, they are only allowed to go up a certain time before the election and must be taken down with 48 hours or the candidate is fined.

So to get back to the blight they cause. Since they are generally on private property, there is probably nothing to stop them going up months in advance or remain up weeks after the election. But they do say that "I have put a yard sign up in my front yard for whatever reason, I acknowledge my support for this candidate", but if they start too early and are too lazy to take them down afterwards they are sending a much stronger message that really they don't care enough about how their home or their neighborhood's appearance.

I hope that by November 6, all signs will be gone.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 30, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> But I do know that in countries where this is done, they are only allowed to go up a certain time before the election and must be taken down with 48 hours or the candidate is fined.

There is a similar law here. Currently, the limit is 90 days before the election. I personally would be happy to see that shortened to 60 days, which is still a month before Vote-by-Mail ballots go out. And signs are required to be removed very shortly after the election, and most campaigns make a real effort to both remind people and to pick-up their signs on the day after. There have been coordinated multi-campaign efforts.

Of course there are signs that the campaigns lose track off (eg someone took a sign at an event without their contact info being recorded).

Posted by Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 9, 2014 at 11:51 am

Hello Palo Alto citizens

I am a candidate for city council.

I have not placed any lawn signs.

I am not asking for donations towards campaign to put up signs.
I went to Vista Print and have a business card size campaign statement.

Hope to bring it you soon as my legs can reach as many households as I can.


Posted by Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 9, 2014 at 12:03 pm


There is a lot I disagree.

In this day and age, lawn signs represent to some extent 'unnecessary' expenditure on candidates part.

It is like riding a 'horse' to go to town.

Let us say if there is a sign Elect REDDY, what does it mean; nothing.
I am not spending my retirement money on a sign with few other candidates.

The money is better spent; not asking people to donate money.
I would rather comment on a blog. Tell true story about my life.

That is me; who I am. Did you see the movie The We Were; with Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford?

It is your blog. You can say what you want. It is indeed democracy.
I can say what I want; you have already removed materiel that I posted with no offensive comments.

a candidate for city council with no asking for donations

Posted by Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 15, 2014 at 7:34 am

Sea REDDY is a registered user.


Thanks for keeping my comments.

You are a gentleman.


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