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Everywhere a sign


The forests of political signs sprout like the fastest and hardiest of weeds at this point in the political calendar, when election day – or, the deadline for voting – looms just ahead. Along highways and arterials especially, you’ll see lots of them.

Across the Snake River in Oregon, where the primary election this year has the same voting deadline date as Idaho’s, you’ll see political signage too, looking in general not terribly different from their Idaho counterparts. With this exception: You’ll tend to see fewer political signs over there.

In Idaho, political signs can be – and there are notable exceptions to this – placed on public lands nearby (though not quite inside) road rights of way, which explains their presence at many freeway interchanges and under bridges. Signs can be placed on private property too (with permission) of course, but many of the signs on public land are there because a campaign decided unilaterally to plant them.

In Oregon, while there’s no single sweeping state law to this effect, you generally can’t plant a political sign on public property or even close by many state or many local rights of way. There’s a rule covering state highways, and many cities and counties have similar constraints locally; some of it is a matter of interpretation in a state where land use is much more regulated. The difference can be subtle but real. That effective restriction of political signs to private property means you need the permission of the private landowner (or, maybe, renter or leaseholder), which is a lot more work to obtain. That extra level of difficulty means the number of signs you see will be considerably fewer.

And this season I can attest political signs are a lot more visible in Idaho than in Oregon.

But they may be similarly effective in both states because not all signs really matter. All locations are not equal…

In rural areas, that often means outsized help for Republicans. In Oregon as in Idaho, most farmers and large landowners tend Republican, so you can guess whose signs you may see, often without interruption over many miles, outside the cities, and this is especially true in Oregon. Those candidates no doubt find it an effective way to raise their visibility.

Still. In the world of political consulting, campaign yard signs in recent decades have fallen into some disrepute. Candidates often like to see them out there, but are they really convincing anyone to support a candidate? Are they just an ego boost? For the most part, do they really even do much to raise a candidate’s visibility – as much as other forms of paid advertising?

I’d argue that in one specialized way they can be of service. Yard signs can be a validator.

In many areas – neighborhoods, cities, regions, whole states – the political culture develops an idea of what’s considered socially acceptable – acceptable, in this case, politically. If for example the people in a town have voted strongly for Candidate A for many years, then people in the area simply may go along with the idea when it’s time to vote, and the candidate benefits from the common assumption that people in this area simply vote that way. The prophecy, or assumption of common interests, becomes self-fulfilling.

But suppose a platoon of signs for Candidate B shows up in this town, with one visible every two or three blocks. The standing assumption is shaken; maybe – demonstrably – not everyone in town really does like A. Maybe B is also an acceptable choice.

It’s a powerful message, opening the door to political change – whether of party, individual candidates or even ballot issues.

The key to accomplishing this is not a mass flood of signs. Placement of signs in bulk – like those sign forests in freeway and busy arterial road areas – accomplish little; but tactical placement of signs in specific neighborhoods or other areas where an implicit message is being sent, can be a clear indicator of real local support which could help a campaign quite a bit.

So watch those signs – but not so much those that show up as part of a crowd. Watch for those that show up as counter-indicators, because they could be indicators of support where you didn’t expect it.

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