A puzzle in American politics: If yard signs are such a waste of time, how come people keep doing them?

Despite the protests of campaign experts, candidates and their supporters demand yard signs. It's our Norman Rockwell moment.
Crosscut archive image.

Campaign yard signs from 2005 displayed at the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.

Despite the protests of campaign experts, candidates and their supporters demand yard signs. It's our Norman Rockwell moment.

Here's something to consider on Primary Day. If campaign yard signs were votes, Angel Bolanos would be a member of the Seattle City Council. Two years ago, Bolanos had Seattle covered with yard signs. So did I, but he was the yard sign champ. Neither of us was elected and that illustrates a continuing puzzle in our American political system. If yard signs are such a waste of time, as campaign experts insist, how come people keep doing them? It's a big job pounding signs into August-hardened soil, only to find them torn, stolen or blown over. They cost money, roughly $4 a piece depending on the print run, which diverts donor dollars from what consultants tell you is the smart move: direct mail. So why do it? For starters, many of us get warm and fuzzy about yard signs, a display of one's personal commitment to civic life. It's a Norman Rockwell moment, a public and often positive declaration of beliefs. ("Help Kids! Vote Schools"). You're taking a stand. Congratulations. And yet when I ran for the city council in 2005, I was told not once but probably dozens of times by wise guys of Seattle politics that I was an idiot. Yard signs, they told me, were the obsession of amateurs. Well, I was an amateur and I wanted yard signs. And if you look around today, you'll see signs for veteran politicians coasting to victory. So they're stupid too? Or maybe, like me, they are responding to demand, especially from family, who want their own yard signs. Don't tell them about your savvy strategy for direct mail -- that's junk, they say. One supporter called me at least once a week about sightings of Bolanos' signs. "He's got at least 10 on Delridge Way. How come you don't? Get somebody out there!" Abundant yard signs convince people that victory is imminent. The more signs, the more you're gaining ground. ("Hey, I see your yard signs all over town. You're doing great!") And face it, after hours of doorbelling the hills of Ballard, a candidate takes comfort at seeing his signs. I kept a map of Seattle with push pins showing mine. I loved looking at it, but the wise guys said: Get back on the phone. Call for money. Your supporters are already going to vote for you. Don't waste time with mass communications. Identify and reach persuadable voters. It made sense at some level, but you aren't listening. Isn't that how you decided to do a nutty thing like run for office? To the casual observer, yard signs look alike. Savvy observers know otherwise. For openers, you go with a union printer and display that union logo, which is less than a half-inch tall. To do otherwise, at least in Seattle, is political suicide, giving your opponent a talking point for every district Democrat group, connecting you to insensitivity to working families, poverty, a lack of healthcare, and maybe Karl Rove. In 2005, I heard one veteran Democrat bash another who had used an "out of state" print shop. His voice choked with feigned outrage as he revealed that his opponent's signs came from Texas. Many candidates go with Boruck Printing, a union shop in Seattle's Greenlake neighborhood. Often, they make one of two choices: the old style cardboard and wooden slats or a more modern corrugated plastics and wire stakes. Take my advice. Forget about the old style. Wood and cardboard signs save money, but they are fragile and go flabby when wet. In 2005, I had a volunteer event where people used electric staplers to assemble the signs, which kept falling apart. So don't do it. Plastic signs look better and the wire stakes go easily into the ground. Or take the advice from the undisputed king of yard signs, Sen. Ken Jacobsen of northeast Seattle's 46th District. Jacobsen recommends something entirely different, a cheap sign that is a thin plastic sack pulled over a wire frame. He raved about how they take up little space in a car and go up fast. No hammer needed. Maria Cantwell and Ron Sims used them in recent elections. They look tacky and raise environmental concerns, but achieve their purpose, getting your name out there. The next decision is the look and color of your signs. Most candidates go with their own name in simple block letters. Some abbreviate their names. In 2006, Mike McGavick dropped his last name and added an exclamation point: Mike! This year, Venus Velazquez is just Venus. Joe Szwaja is Joe. Sally Clark, a compact name that would please a typesetter, emphasizes her first name. So it's SALLY Clark. Bruce Harrell does the opposite, shrinking his first name. Many candidates like symbols. In 2005, Robert Rosencrantz ran a cartoon of himself in running shorts. Jean Godden goes with a jazzy graphic of the Space Needle angled like a cannon -- doubtless intended as a symbol of her feisty forwardness, or something. Greg Nickels goes with an upright Space Needle. Tom Rasmussen puts the needle behind his full name. Peter Steinbrueck likes to use the clock at the Pike Place Market, where his father gained local fame. A few candidates add slogans. I went with "...for an effective city council," but hardly anyone got that reference to CHECC, the late 1960s city reform group. After you've ordered signs, the next step is placing them around town, best done overnight by college students in ninja outfits. Some signs go to private homes of supporters; most go to public arterials. I know one campaign manager who studied charts of traffic flows to maximize placements. On Sand Point Way in northeast Seattle, one campaign arranged a cluster of signs that actually extended into the street. That's a no-no, a consequence of energetic volunteers, who in some campaigns make a point of accidentally knocking over the other guy's signs. Once your signs are out there, be prepared for weird reactions, even with legally placed signs. Some creep in West Seattle like to visit one long stretch of roadway and used a razor to neatly slice everybody's signs, leaving them dangling in halves. (I kept thinking of Hannibal Lector.) At Tully's near Husky Stadium, somebody kept knocking over one of my signs. Every week, I'd restore it but finally gave up when I found it impaled with a stick (like a defeated vampire?) Message received. I wasn't getting that guy's vote. A day after the election that year, I drove near the University of Washington and spotted one of my signs, arranged with many others on the lawn of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. It's a tradition, nearby frat guys converting campaign refuse, all that advertisement, blather and bravado into something sweet, a bouquet for the sorority women. It's a kind of unity after the election, winners and losers doing their part for an annual campus romance. The politics of hope. I'll vote for that.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.