Elections

How yard signs helped beat Roy Moore, and could elect red-state Dems

Before Doug Jones shocked the world, before the stunning allegations against Roy Moore, even before the pundits thought a special Senate election in Alabama could be competitive, Wade Perry decided to run a different kind of campaign.

So he turned to yard signs.

No, really.

The 42-year-old manager of Jones’ longshot Democratic Senate campaign sat in the candidate’s Birmingham headquarters in the early summer, before Jones even won his own primary, and hatched a plan with campaign chairman Giles Perkins. Their realization: the campaign needed to show Republican voters — some of whom hadn’t voted for a Democrat in decades — that it would be OK to support one this time around.

And what better way, they thought, than letting the average Alabamian see rows of Jones signs in their neighbors’ yards?

“I remember sitting with Giles and talking about neighbor-to-neighbor legitimization,” Perry told McClatchy. “And how this race was different in that signs were going to matter.”

Perry knows men and women in his line of work will roll their eyes at the mere mention of yard signs. The two-by-four hunks of cardboard excite over-eager volunteers, the thinking goes, and never influence actual voters. They're considered especially dated in a time of sophisticated voter outreach, a data-driven mindset prevalent in the party since Barack Obama's first presidential campaign.

Perry himself can scarcely believe he’s talking about them seriously. (“I can’t believe I just spent 30 minutes on the phone with you talking about yard signs,” he said.)

But the man who managed the most stunning upset in recent Democratic political history has a larger — and much more important — point he wants to make; his party must be willing to try something different with their politics and campaigns, especially as it prepares to compete this November in a litany of Republican-rich areas. If not, it risks committing the same mistakes that led to Republican control of the White House, Congress, and dozens of states across the country.

“There has to be a willingness,” he said. “There has to be. Innovation and efficiencies and new ideas are good things.

“Even if it’s old ideas done better,” Perry added.

Of course, he doesn’t think Jones won because of yard signs. No campaign is won or lost because of a single decision, especially in a race with circumstances as unique as the Alabama special election, in which Moore, the GOP candidate, was accused of child molestation. (As with any good political operative, Perry attributes the victory first and foremost to the qualities of the candidate himself.)

But he does think the signs played a small if key role for a campaign that knew it needed to try and do things differently. It would eventually distribute about 15,000 of the red, white, and blue signs — Perry wasn’t sure of the exact number — to supporters, under strict orders to plant them outside their home and nowhere else.

Perry was most proud of how the campaign handed out its signs, a process he says was never-before-done in Alabama politics. Anybody who wanted one first had to give his or her name, address, telephone number, and email address. The Jones supporter could pick one up from a neighbor, too, but only if he or she could also supply contact information.

To Perry, this was the yard signs’ most important contribution. The data became a resource for the campaign, helping it organize and then mobilize its dedicated supporters and volunteers. And the signs themselves then became material proof that the campaign’s momentum was real, according to Perry, who would occasionally drive through wealthy neighborhoods (a key target for the campaign) to count how many of them he could spot.

“I could drive down the street and think, ‘Goodness, I haven’t seen a Democratic yard sign in that yard in a long, long time,” Perry said.

Political professionals usually dismiss yard signs because the boards, traditionally with enough room only for a name and color scheme, don’t say much about the candidate. A TV or digital ad, or even a piece of mail, can by comparison explain a candidate’s biography or agenda (or, more likely, attack an opponent).

“Signs are a consultant’s nightmare and a print shop’s dream,” wrote one political operative in 2014 in Campaigns & Elections, a politics journal. “You can never have enough of them, they’re a drain on your campaign budget, and your field staff (if the campaign is big enough to even have one) and they don’t do a damn thing for name ID, messaging, or GOTV [get out the vote].”

One regularly cited study, published in March 2016, found yard signs increased the supporting candidate’s vote share by 1.7 percentage points.

But the thinking around yard signs might be changing ever so slightly. After the 2016 election, some journalists cited the ubiquity of Donald Trump yard signs, especially in rural areas, as proof that Hillary Clinton’s campaign should have been more worried about the outcome. And the Clinton campaign’s dominance on TV didn’t translate to the kind of increased support most would expect.

Political pros have expected that social media would play an increasingly important role in elections, letting friends and family play an outsized role in shaping other people’s political views. They didn’t expect, however, that yard signs might amount to a form of low-tech social media.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, we thought political communication had evolved to a place where TV was king — and the old chestnuts of yard signs, billboards and bumper stickers were outdated and ineffective,” said Paul Maslin, the Jones campaign’s pollster and a veteran Democratic strategist. “But now we realize that the impact and reach of broadcast or even cable television has clear limits, and that a variety of peer-to-peer communications, led by but not exclusively including social media platforms, matters more and more.

“If yard signs are a relatively inexpensive way to reinforce that type of communication, why not?” he added.

Support for yard signs might not even be Perry’s most controversial opinion at the moment. The Alabama race’s defining moment came in November, when The Washington Post published a story alleging that the Republican nominee Moore had sexually assaulted Leigh Corfman, then a 14-year-old girl.

The story prompted a wave of similar allegations against Moore and was widely seen as the turning point in the election.

But Perry says in the campaign’s own polling, Jones was down only one point before the Post story. And in the days and weeks that followed, he said he saw Republicans voters the campaign needed actually pull back from the Democrat as voters retreated into their partisan corners.

Does Perry think Jones would have won even without the allegations against Moore?

“People will think I’m crazy,” he said. “But yeah, I do.”

Perry has worked in politics for about two decades, even leaving school early to become a state party organizer (He returned a few years later to get his degree.) A veteran operative, he doesn’t want fellow Democrats to think that a few the yard signs will be a magic elixir for his party’s campaigns in 2018.

But if they start to think they need to do things differently, even if it means investing in cardboard, he encourages his brethren to go for it.

“As much as the conventional wisdom is yard signs are a $3 per supporter tax, for us it was worth it,” he said. “I really do believe the neighbor-to-neighbor legitimization made a difference, a big difference.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty

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