It is the middle of October and thankfully my beautiful town of Long Valley NJ (aka Washington Township NJ) has not had the rolling hills and fall colors desecrated by a proliferation of campaign signs. That is campaign signs for the local election here in town. Sure I put up about 100 signs when I ran for Board of Education and along with the other candidates, the town was plastered with lawn signs. In fact, one former board of education member gave me some advice when I met with him; that advice was "if you want to win, you'll put up as many lawn signs as possible". So what gives with the local election? Aren't campaign signs part of the basic political strategy? Before I give some observations a little background.
- It is a town committee election between incumbent Independent turned Democrat Kevin Nedd and Board of Ed member, Republican Jim Harmon
- Kevin has been accused of putting up unattributed signs.
- Jim Harmon wanted a gentleman's agreement with Kevin regarding when signs could go up.
- Kevin upped the ante and said let's not put any signs up and donate the money that they would have used to pay for the signs to a charity.
- Jim said he wouldn't have his campaign tactics dictated by his opponent
So what does the town look like? I have yet to see a Kevin Nedd sign and I have seen a number of Jim Harmon signs but only I people's lawns and not on your typical "public" spots. There are McCain signs as well as ones from "that other guy", but once again on people's property. I wonder how long that will last? I won't put up any McCain signs unless the campaign or the RNC asks me to (back in primary season I did it on my own because Senator McCain didn't have a ton of NJ infrastructure support until Rudy dropped out).
Typically the value of the signs lets people know in a public way that they support the candidate and it is ok to vote for the candidate (targeted at undecideds). It goes after the herd mentality that people want to vote for a candidate that has a large following and they want to feel good about their vote. It also helps with GOTV (get out the vote) in a cheap, cost effective way. I guess there is some brand value too, but I don't place much weight in that at the national level. Bottom line - it helps with GOTV and the herd mentality of voting with a majority. You'd think that would be useful in a local campaign.
However Kevin Nedd has abstained from the lawn sign strategy. I know Kevin and he isn't dumb. He is probably betting that he has enough registered Democrats and that he has good name recognition. Kevin also is relying on letter writing, his public record, interviews in the local paper, and his status on the Town Council to keep his name in the public domain and to communicate with potential voters. He also knows from the gentleman's agreement that a lot of people dislike those signs especially the ones in common areas. He also has a detailed driven website. By not putting up the signs he is trying to set a standard for local elections. Perhaps there will be direct mail (yuck) and an email campaign, but as of now he is "signless".
Jim Harmon meanwhile is employing signs but in a respectful manner. I see nothing wrong with supporters putting up signs on their property. Jim is also relying on direct mail, interviews, the Board of Education (it has less visibility except when it comes to Math), and for a period of time was running a lot Google search ads in NJ. The bulk of the search terms have since be replaced by advertising for an attack site called KevinNeddSaid but I am unsure as to whether they are linked because there is no official campaign disclosure on the website. The KevinNeddSaid ads are heavily rotated in. It is curious that the ads never appear together at the same time, but that's a question for Google.
So without the signs it really comes down to who knows their base better and who knows the undecideds in town better. Who can best bring their case to why voters should support them and who sounds/reads better in local debates and articles. Who has better brand awareness and can appeal to make their case to the herd voters. The GOTV aspect of lawn signs will be delivered by the National Campaigns.
It should be very interesting to see how this turns out and what weight the lawn signs really have in an election. Back in my old AT&T Bell Labs days, this is what you'd call a control treatment experiment with the extra treatment being the lawn signs. Of course this local election isn't a kosher experiment because the underlying controls are not normalized between the campaigns, but still it makes for interesting observations. Personally, I already have my own theories on how it will turn out.