Political candidates still sign on to this campaign strategy
By Mike Danahey email@example.com September 25, 2012 9:30PM
Political signs along State Street in Elgin. September 20, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Elgin sign rules
In Elgin, no political campaign can be bigger than 32 square feet in surface area or exceed 10 feet in height.
A political campaign sign displayed more than 60 days prior to an election or more than seven days after an election is considered noncommercial street graphics and is limited to 6 square feet of surface area, one displayed per property and other restrictions.
Updated: October 27, 2012 6:05AM
ELGIN — Some view them like weeds cluttering up area lawns and lots. But others see them as recurring flowers of democracy.
Either way, it’s that time of election season when political campaign yard signs have started to sprout in Elgin — and pretty much anywhere else in the free world where there is a fall election taking place.
Northern Illinois University political science professor Matt Streb noted that these mini-billboards have been used since there have been elections. They are pretty common in other nations, too.
It’s because they serve a pretty simple purpose: building name recognition.
The signs also show neighborly support, Streb said, and there is some social scientific evidence pointing toward a bandwagon effect influencing voters toward a signed candidate, particularly in local races.
They are a relatively inexpensive form of advertisement, he noted. Local candidates said smaller signs run $2 to $3 each when purchased in bulk.
“Most importantly, they provide legitimacy. The more signs someone sees, the more legitimate that candidate seems to be,” Streb said.
Streb’s points were echoed by candidates interviewed for this story.
“Yard signs play a huge role in our campaign strategy,” said Judge John Walters, a Republican from Elgin. “Most campaigns are all about name recognition.”
“Signs are grass-roots, affordable political speech,” said Walters’ opponent, Democrat John Dalton of Elgin. “The candidate is speaking, but more importantly, the homeowner is speaking. The homeowner’s endorsement may sway countless voters that see that sign over a course of several weeks.”
Both men are running to be Kane County resident judge in the 16th Circuit.
Dalton added, “That’s why signs put in vacant homes or at businesses often aren’t as significant. Signs placed in the public right of way, parks, entrances to subdivisions or other places where it is obvious permission wasn’t obtained not only don’t show support, they demonstrate a lack of adherence to the law and are often a sign of desperation.”
“But they are just one piece of getting your name out there and visible to the public,” said Elgin Democrat Cristina Castro, incumbent Kane County Board member from District 20. “Signs don’t vote, but you need at least three to five hits of any sort to build name recognition with voters.”
Her opponent, Republican Henoch Fuentes — who is volunteer community chaplain with the Elgin Police Department and pastor with Evangelical Covenant Church on Larkin Avenue — said he recently took in $350 in contributions that he probably will use to buy some signs.
“I hope I have time to do it,” he said. “I would rather talk to people, so I’m putting together forums” like one he hosted Tuesday evening at the Westlund family home.
Fuentes said he is relying more on being known in the area and postcards he brings along when he pounds the pavement, knocking on doors looking for votes.
“I’ve worn out my shoe leather,” he said.
Candidates have to build constant name recognition, and since not every voter uses social media or reads newspapers, signs are still part of the mix, Castro said. So is going door-to-door, which she sees as her most effective means of campaigning.
Keeping it simple
Signs remain a bountiful, if minimalist form, of campaigning and typically are free of rhetoric, slurs or slogans.
Walters noted the simplicity of what his signs say: “‘Judge Walters, Circuit Judge, paid for by Citizens to Elect John Walters,’ the party label, and union ‘bead’ (for having the signs made using union labor).”
“Name and office sought are critical, and they need to be large enough to read at night in a moving car,” Dalton said. “A short slogan can be helpful, but there’s a limited amount of space and some required legal disclosures, so there isn’t room for much more.”
Castro’s signs are a shade of blue she likes, Dalton’s also are blue, and Walters’ signs are green. NIU’s Streb noted that signs typically are in American flag or primary colors, although some try to stand out by bucking that trend.
Cary Collins’ Irish-themed orange and green signs would be an example of this.
“I’m quite proud of my Irish heritage, and the orange turned out well,” said Collins, Republican candidate for 22nd State Senate District.
As for a strategy on sign placement, Castro said when she canvasses a neighborhood, she asks potential voters who seem favorable to her message if they would like to put up a lawn sign. Sometimes she partners with other candidates in putting up signs.
“The key is talking to neighbors,” Collins said.
Collins’ opponent, incumbent Democrat Mike Noland, said, “Yard signs are placed in the yards of registered voters who agree to host them. (We put up) as many as are appropriate depending on the size and location of the yard.”
“We don’t do anything blindly,” Dalton said. “We have a comprehensive voter contact strategy that includes social media, direct mail, phone calls, Internet, speaking engagements, meet-n-greets, and such. And we canvass precincts systematically using walk lists culled from VoteBuilder. When we knock on doors and get a good response, we ask for a sign.”
“Friends and supporters have volunteered for signs,” Walters said. “We try to spread them throughout the judicial circuit. We certainly try to hit main streets and locations. I have been walking in neighborhoods throughout the communities asking for support.”
Dalton noted he has been using three sizes of yard signs — some 8 feet wide by 4 feet tall, some 4-by-4, and the typical smaller size which are 3 feet wide and 18 inches tall.
“We only have a few of the 8-footers left over, but we have about 70 4-footers in the field already, and over 1,200 small signs that are or will be going up throughout the 2nd Subcircuit District,” Dalton said.
According to Dalton, “For big signs, you want to focus on prominent locations, major streets, corners and such, and you want to cover your whole district if possible. For small signs, more is better, and you want to focus on putting one in at as many houses as possible to show each neighborhood that you have the support of their opinion leaders.”
“Many have commented that they do not appreciate the large signs in neighborhoods, and I agree,” Walters said.
All told, Castro said she expects to put up about 500 signs and will hold some back until Election Day to plant in allowable spots 100 feet or so away from polling places.
Collins claimed to be one of the first to use the larger signs, about 20 years ago during campaigns for office in Hoffman Estates. This time, he intends to use 50 of the largest signs and 1,000 signs in all. Noland declined to say how many signs he is using.
Dalton said his campaign puts up just one sign per property.
“Unless it’s a corner, then we put one in on each side usually at the request of the homeowner,” he said. “More signs at a single house are just a waste and a visual blight.”
“Typically, we post one sign on a property, but there are times when the property is large or on a corner and two or three signs are needed for visibility,” Walters said. “Usually, no more than two signs are posted on any one property. No sign is ever posted without permission.”