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November 5, 2012

Signs, signs, everywhere signs

— In an age in which most Americans’ lives are governed by the Internet and Smartphone technology, campaign signs can seem almost antiquated.

Outdated or not, bright cardboard signs have dotted most of Limestone County’s landscape this year, dating back to before the March 13 primary elections. In the late spring and early summer, campaign signs for City Council candidates began popping up, followed closely by signs placed by candidates who will appear on Tuesday’s ballot.

Signs that aren’t for a specific candidate instead carry party messages like “Fight Back Vote Republican” or “I Support the Middle Class … I Vote Democratic.”

Dr. Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University, said campaign signs matter less than they once did but can still prove valuable to county and municipal candidates.

“Local candidates don’t have the budgets to do big media buys involving high-profile media,” he said. “If I run for county commission in Madison County, I won’t have the money to do the evening news commercials; I just wouldn’t have the budget.”

If the amount of signs in local yards is any indication, however, supporters of political candidates still place great value in signs. While most signs tow the partisan line, a few homeowners in Athens clearly support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and a Democratic local candidate.

If residents see fewer Obama-Biden signs in yards, it may not have anything to do with the president’s popularity in Limestone County. Ron Gatlin, chairman of the Limestone County Democratic Executive Committee, said only about 400 signs were ordered, all of which have been given out. The local Republican Executive Committee, on the other hand, ordered 1,450 Romney-Ryan signs and all have been given out.

Ronnie Coffman, chairman of the LCREC and the Republican candidate for license commissioner, said he’s not surprised by the popularity of the Romney signs.

“It was really good four years ago, even with (John) McCain and (Sarah) Palin,” he said. “You don’t have (as many signs) as you used to, but they’re still out there.”

As of Thursday, there were no Romney-Ryan signs left, but LCREC volunteer Linda Wilson said about 30 of the “Fight Back” remained. She said a donation was not required to get a Romney sign, but the party would gladly accept one.

“It makes me feel good (all the signs are gone),” she said. “I think we have a very good chance on Tuesday.”

Like the Republican committee, Gatlin said the Democratic committee did not require a donation to receive an Obama sign, but did encourage one. He said the committee has to purchase the signs from the national committee, though the local club did not pay as much as an individual who bought one directly from the Obama campaign.

Gatlin said the signs are nice to have, but the Democrats’ most effective means of reaching potential voters is through door-to-door promotion.

“Research supports that signs do not affect voter outcome, so we don’t place a whole lot of value in them,” he said.

Brown said signs can give a local candidate an advantage if there is some strategy involved. He said roadside billboards can be effective if they are put out early in the campaign and if a candidate can afford them. He said smaller signs placed in the rights-of-way become “a blur” for passing motorists and potential voters.

“One of the things I would try to do is find a way to put out some of the small signs down the road from a polling location,” he said. “A political novice goes to the voting location itself and sticks their stuff everywhere. I would go just down the road and find out the traffic flow pattern to that box and put a bunch of signs in a row. Your signage and your name are more likely to be noticed.”

He said another tactic candidates should consider is printing up attractive postcards that can be sent by people who are active in various churches to other church members. He said if the message comes from someone a voter knows, it will be more likely to sink in.

“The intervening friend between the candidate and the voter makes that contact more personal than the billboard on U.S. 72,” he said. “The more personal you can make it, the better.”

Brown acknowledged that the use of the Internet in campaigning has made signs less important, but he emphasized their importance in local races.

“Do I think they’re worthless? No, but the utility of the signage has gone down,” he said. “Whether the sign is in the form of a billboard or something smaller, it’s still not as personal as the (Internet) contact.”

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