The Strategy Behind Campaign Signs

June 27, 2014

If you spend much time in the car right now, they’re impossible to miss … huddled on the side of the road, baking in the summer sun. They’re bright and flashy, begging for your attention, trying to draw your eyes away from their neighbors.

We’re talking about campaign signs. During an election year, just about everyone can name spots where they’re clustered.

I wanted to learn more about the strategy behind campaign signs, and as it turns out, this is something that a member of Arizona’s congressional delegation knows a lot about. Republican David Schweikert represents Arizona’s 6th Congressional District. As it turns out, he’s been wrangling with political signage for decades.

“My very first campaign was out putting up signs for Herb Drinkwater,” he said.

But the signs Schweikert’s camp puts up these days are a lot different than the signs he used to haul around Scottsdale.

“In the old days, they used to be plywood with wallpaper paste and paper on them. You’d hit monsoon season trying to put them up, and I’ve been knocked cold putting up one of those big signs. You can really tell folks who love this do it and have been doing it a long time. They’ll stand in the  street and look at angles and degrees, and how a car can see it, and how the headlights will hit it, is someone else’s sign in the way. Even though you and I may accept the reality that people are driving 50 miles an hour by it and it’s a flash on the side of their vision, for the folks involved in politics the signs really are a labor of love.”

And as for why you see the big clusters of signs all around the Valley, Schweikert said there’s a kind of first-in effect.

“The first person to put up a sign in a spot, others show up because they assume, well, this is a good spot because the owner’s going to allow it to stay. And it gets funnier than that. If you’ve ever had the chance to sit down with a number of folks who like working on campaigns, they’ll have entire discussions on the proper way to wire a sign to the t-post. It really does get that absurd.”

The big signs, he said, do a couple things. They create greater name ID, and they also show people who follow politics closely that a candidate is viable and taking the race seriously. As for individual yard signs, Schweikert said those are the product of door-to-door outreach, and that some of the numbers his campaign ran last cycle showed the yard signs could have a huge effect on how a district votes. And that points to the impact this kind of campaigning can have as TV and radio ads become less impactful in the social media age where everyone’s fighting for eyeballs.

“All of a sudden now mail, yard signs, larger street signs are actually coming back into vogue as a way to communicate with so many folks who’ve now found alternative ways and to alternative media they listen to (that) locks them out from being communicated to by a candidate.”

Schweikert said he actually enjoys going out and putting up campaign signs himself.

“My hands right now have all these puncher marks from the wire. You’ll sit around with first-time candidates and long-time candidates, and we’ll tell the same stories about what it’s like putting up a sign in the middle of the night and having the police pull up alongside you with a spotlight. I mean, it’s just part of the tradition. And I get razzed so much when people pull up and say, ‘You’re putting up your own signs, you’re really that cheap?’”