frank_talk (2006-17)

Get a Yard Sign

Participation may reach a flash point

by Frank Cagle

Most professional political consultants consider yard signs a very ineffective means of advertising, and if it were up to them, the tradition would die away. But the signs remain ubiquitous, especially in district or local races. They remain because people expect them, and because they serve other purposes.

If you get residents in a neighborhood to put signs in their yards, it is not likely to convince a drive-by motorist to change a vote. But what you have done is to ensure that the persons who put your signs in their yards will vote for you. It also might have an effect on someone on the street if the person with the sign is respected and influential.

But the main purpose in using yard signs is to get the talk right. If people see a lot of signs in their neighborhood they think the candidate must be working hard, going door to door, and thus worthy of support. The people on the other side of town might never have heard of the candidate, but you get the impression the candidate is everywhere because of your perception. Another purpose in yard signs is to give enthusiastic supporters something to do. It gets people committed to your campaign. If they have spent hours going door to door and putting up your yard signs you can be assured of their votes.

So the primary purpose of yard signs is to get all of the people involved in putting them up and allowing them in their yards to commit to your campaign. It is the same principle as having small fund-raisers where people only contribute five bucks or so to the campaign. It isn’t about raising money. But if someone buys a ticket to your pancake breakfast, he or she will feel “invested” in your campaign and is likely to vote for you.

The downside to yard sign campaigns is that it sometimes attracts people who get caught up in yard sign “wars.” It is often the place where the most friction occurs between campaigns. It is inevitable that some people involved in putting up signs start to think about how much easier it would be to just pull up the opponents’ signs. It usually starts with a fight over a good position. The phenomenon escalates, and bad blood develops. Very often that occurs among people who are not particularly close to the candidate and are not decision-makers. There has been a fierce battle going on lately between the campaign of Councilman Steve Hall, running for county mayor against Mayor Mike Ragsdale, and the incumbent’s campaign. Accusations have been flying back and forth about theft of yard signs.

Most of the people involved in putting up yard signs are hard-working supporters of their candidates, and it is often an activity where young political operatives get a start in working in political races. But sometimes you get fringe people who show up and hang around. 

It is probably a coincidence, but it is worth noting that Hall was in the process of loading yard signs into his vehicle for a night of sign work when someone took a couple of shots at him. I don’t know if it’s related or not, but it’s something that ought to be looked into. Someone put two slugs into the door of his business; one of the shots was near his head. Let’s remember that someone shot into the Republican Party headquarters during the 2004 election. There have been instances where Ragsdale has been concerned with security at public appearances when accosted by critics who seem to be off the deep end.

The possibility of nutcases infiltrating the hard-working people in political campaigns is troubling. Neither campaign would countenance those people. But it may be that there are some people on the fringes of various campaigns who are unbalanced enough to take up violence. It seems reasonable to assume that if people are shooting into a party headquarters or shooting at a candidate, it has something to do with an election. Those are scary situations, and one hopes public officials and the police know just how serious it is. If the voting process is being infiltrated by unstable people who think taking shots at a headquarters or a candidate is the right thing to do, then the FBI needs to step in with a full court press.

The coverage, interest and discussion of the Supreme Court decision on term limits have, lately, pushed the mayor’s race into the background. Hall just isn’t a good enough candidate with enough charisma to effectively demagogue Ragsdale on the wheel tax, the defining issue of this election just two months ago.

There are now newer outrages to stir up the public, and they overshadow an outrage from two years ago. What effect this shooting incident has on the campaign is hard to judge. No one with any sense would assume that the Ragsdale campaign had anything to do with it. But who knows who we have out there on the fringes of both campaigns who not only ought to be barred from participation, but ought to be locked up someplace.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at .