First, recognize that the typical serious campaign puts significant thought and effort into the design and deployment of campaign signs, so it is not unreasonable to draw inferences about the candidate and the campaign. I have found that the design of the sign gives some reliable hints about the personality of the candidate. However, it is not in my nature to publicly engage in psycho-babble, and since I am working on one candidate's campaign, that gives me further reason to avoid this.
Note: Speculative interpretations of the design of signs is off-topic here. I have mentioned it only so that you can think about it for yourself.
The second inference you can draw from the sign is how well it performs its goal of being visible and readable to passers-by. For example, a lawn sign that is yellow with white text indicates a candidate and campaign that is lackadaisical about details: They hadn't bothered with the simplest of test, that is, printing a (reduced) version using a home computer, walking it outside and taking a few steps back.
Next, realize that lawn signs have two basic audiences. The first audience are the people who know the person displaying the sign. It can be an invitation for neighbors to talk to that person, or those friends and neighbors may simply cruise by the house and use the signs as recommendations of whom to vote for.
The second audience is miscellaneous passers-by, and what follows here focuses on what those passers-by can infer from those lawn signs. During the early stages of the campaign, lawn signs help establish who are the serious candidates: The low filing fee ($25) and signature requirement (25) makes it easy for anyone to be a candidate. If a candidate hasn't deployed a noticeable number of lawn signs by late September, you can infer that the candidate is either not making a serious effort or can't get his candidacy taken seriously by others. What chance does a candidate have of being effective on Council or the School Board if s/he can't convince a modest number of people to stick a lawn sign in their front yards?
After the earliest stages of the campaign, the number and distribution of lawn signs implies various things about the candidates. There are three basic ways that a lawn sign winds up in someone's front yard:
1. The resident attends a candidate's event and is impressed enough with that candidate to take a sign and install it.
2. The resident has learned about the candidate and gone to the website and requested a sign.
3. Rather than requesting or volunteering, the resident has been asked to install the sign. For example, members of the campaign team may ask their non-political friends to install signs, or the campaign may approach residents at high-visibility locations to install signs.
The third muddles (confounds) the utility of lawn signs as a indicator of the level of support for a candidate. But it is a tactic with some risks?if a passer-by asks the resident why he supports that candidate and gets a non-answer, that undermines the credibility of all the other lawn signs for that candidate.
In addition to looking how many signs a candidate has deployed, look at where they are deployed. This is a very rough indication of the candidate's network. It is to be expected that candidates will have stronger networks in some sections of town than others. What you are looking for during the campaign is whether they are reaching out into those other neighborhoods. On the flip side, residents can interpret the paucity of campaign signs in their neighborhood as an opportunity: Serious candidates are eager to introduce themselves into such areas. In the old days, candidates would introduce themselves going door-to-door, and many of them still do some of that. However, the current preferred way to for candidates to meet residents is at small gatherings at people's homes, where the resident invites one or more candidates and their neighbors. These meet-and-greet events are commonly called "coffees", to emphasis that the host need not provide substantial refreshments, although some hosts do (for example, wine and cheese parties).
If you decide that you want to host one of these events, the candidates' websites (below) have contact information. Be aware that these coffees occupy a large part of the candidates' schedules and as Election Day gets closer, it becomes harder to get on the schedule.
I look not only at the signs in my neighborhood, but in other neighborhoods as well. Palo Alto has many, many different neighborhoods that have very different circumstance and problems. The "north-south divide" is but a coarse expression of the problem. There are neighborhoods that many officials and other influential people don't remember as being in Palo Alto (or maybe they never knew). For the curious, I am not going to enumerate them?it will make more of a lasting impression if you have to find them on a map.
Part of the current conflict in City politics is that City Hall has had too many members of Council and the appointed Boards and Commissions who have lacked a geographically diverse network. One sees this in their forgetting that all of Palo Alto isn't like the immediate neighborhood they live in, but especially in the difficulty a few have giving credence to what they are being told about problems in other neighborhoods.
The geographic distribution of lawn signs is a poor proxy for the real question you want answered, but I don't know of a better one. Suggestions anyone? Please no top-of-the-head responses. I am looking for well-considered advice for the readers.
Aside: To answer the obvious question of whether lawn signs function as traditional advertising, creating name (brand) recognition, and having enough "impressions" that people come to think of the product (candidate) as a safe choice. I don't know, and I don't know of anyone who has an educated guess. There is enough anecdotal evidence to know that this is non-negligible. The surveys that I know of show this effect to be small, but those results are not reliable. First, those surveys suffer from selection bias: People who engage in this behavior are probably less likely to respond to the survey. Second, the surveys involve self-reporting, which under-counts effects that are largely unconscious or subtle.
APPENDIX: Campaign Websites (alphabetically)
Palo Alto City Council
?A. C. Johnston
?Mark Weiss (part of his general blogging site)
Unaware of website for Wayne Douglass.
Palo Alto Unified School District
?Jay Blas Jacob Cabrera
?Catherine Crystal Foster
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