The Science of Signs

Campaign signs at the corner of Rose Drive and Bastanchury Road in Yorba Linda.

Tracy Wood

Campaign signs at the corner of Rose Drive and Bastanchury Road in Yorba Linda.

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Monday, May 24, 2010 | It may look like clutter, but there is a science to those batches of political campaign signs jammed together at busy intersections or strung along highways.

Just ask the political consultants who worry over every detail, from making sure the candidate’s name can be easily read at 40 mph to assessing color schemes to avoid blending into the landscape.

A mainstay of politics, signs are used by the majority of campaigns. For some campaigns — because the high costs of direct mail and other forms of advertising keep getting higher — signs are all they’ve got.

And for all candidates, successful use of signs goes beyond what meets the eye. They are about name ID among voters, for sure. But they also speak to a candidate’s supporters and serve to undermine their opponents.

The role of signs, said longtime Orange County political consultant Eileen Padberg, is to send a “subliminal message” that helps voters remember a candidate’s name.

On their own, signs are unlikely to get anyone elected, experts say. Persuading voters to back a candidate is the work of mailers, speeches and television ads.

But signs get the candidate’s name in voters’ heads and reinforce the messages established through other means. They are also morale boosters for the candidate’s troops.

“[They] make your own people feel very good, and they also shore up a lot of what people read about you and hear about you,” said Padberg, a veteran of many campaigns, including that of former President George H.W. Bush. This year she is helping County Assessor Webster J. Guillory.

Keep It Simple

For a sign to be good, Padberg said, its message must be simple. The name of the candidate and maybe the office he or she is seeking are enough. Too much information looks cluttered, distracts drivers from the candidate’s name, and probably can’t be read from a moving car anyway.

As for color, she said, it doesn’t matter if two opposing candidates use the same color scheme. All that’s important is that the color stands out and doesn’t disappear into the background. Green, for example, can become a part of the landscape.

More than anything, a candidate has to pay close attention to where signs are placed. And then, of course, have people willing to do the hard work of placing them.

“One of the most important things in a (local) campaign is to have somebody who will put up signs, because it’s a big job,” Padberg said. “A lot of local campaigns have volunteers who want to do something, and sign posting is something they can do.”

For campaigns that can afford it, there are companies that hire workers to put up signs. These can be particularly useful in the final days of a campaign when the goal is to blanket a large area literally overnight.

Front Yards Are Best

Most cities have regulations on where signs can be posted to prevent them from becoming traffic hazards. Generally, they can’t go on city, county or state office or park property and should only be posted on private property with the permission of the owner.

Also, Padberg said, candidates should put their signs down low, where they can be seen.

The downside of that is a race in which one side, or both, sets out to steal the signs of an opponent. Then there is little choice but to go up, ensuring that someone will at least have to scale a utility pole or fence to tear down a sign.

A prime location is a home’s front lawn. Voters who see those signs hopefully think, “Gee, if my neighbor is supporting this guy and I don’t know who he is, I’ll probably support him too,” said Scott Hart, who is managing the campaign of treasurer/tax collector candidate Keith Rodenhuis among others.

But signs can backfire, said Larry Agran, mayor pro tem of Irvine and a veteran of many political campaigns.

“There’s a fair number of people who hate signs,” he said. “There are a lot of people who tell me flat out they regard it as visual pollution and wish people wouldn’t do it.”

But signs are pretty much all David Su has. Su is a 26-year-old political newcomer and one of three candidates in the 42nd congressional district challenging Republican incumbent Gary Miller of Diamond Bar.

Su doesn’t have the money to send out mail. That, he said, can cost $5,000 to $25,000 per city. But he does have the money for signs, which, he said, you can buy for about $650 for 500, or 1,000 for $900.

He assembled them on stakes himself, picked out his own sites and personally stuck them in the ground. An advertising consultant, Su has built his campaign on his signs and walking door-to-door distributing fliers about himself. Campaigning, he discovered, “has been a very humbling experience.”

Signs as a Weapon

The flip side of creating signs to promote a candidate is posting signs to badmouth an opponent. Signs have appeared in northern Orange County criticizing some of the candidates in the 4th District county supervisor’s race.

Said Hart: Negative signs can “be effective” if done right. “It’s an inexpensive way” to hit at an opponent, he said. “The challenge with a sign like that is you really have to make sure it (the negative message) stands out.”

Campaign volunteers are frequently accused of tearing down the signs of opponents, and experienced campaign staffers said such volunteers should be extremely careful not to get caught.

Instead of removing an opponent’s name from a street corner, volunteers nabbed in the act of taking down a sign may wind up bringing bad publicity to their own candidate.

A safer tactic, Padberg said, is to find out where your opponent lives and get his or her neighbors to post your candidate’s signs. “It gives your volunteers some comic relief.”

The big push to get signs in front of the public happens roughly a month before Election Day, about the time absentee ballots are mailed out. But even for that short time, signs have to be durable. High winds can tear them down. If they’re not made well, the sun can bleach them.

And Padberg remembers one year, before the current brand of heavy-duty inks were available, that an untimely rain storm ruined the signs of one of her candidates, making all of the colors run together.

One important rule, Padberg stresses to candidates: Win or lose, take your signs down right after the election.

“Make sure you have a good program to take them down,” she advises. “There’s nothing worse than seeing campaign signs two weeks after an election.”

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