Virginia Notebook: Signs of Discontent For Obama
Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign is spending millions of dollars on television ads in Virginia, staffing 43 offices and sending the candidate and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., to every corner of the state.
But Obama has apparently overlooked one important element of a successful campaign in Virginia: stocking up on those venerable lawn signs.
Across the state, Democratic officials are clamoring to get hold of free Obama yard signs but are being told that none are available or that they have to buy them from the candidate's Web site. It can take weeks to get them delivered.
The frustration of volunteers and Democratic officials over the campaign's inability to provide the signs is nearing a boiling point in some parts of Virginia.
As signs for GOP nominee John McCain sprout up in neighborhood after neighborhood, some Democrats are starting to fear that their failure to win the lawn sign war could in a small way cut into Obama's ability to carry Virginia.
"I think they might be missing the boat," Chris Graham, chairman of the Waynesboro Democratic Committee, said in an interview. "We have so many people coming in, and they just want a sign. ..... Signs are a big deal for our people."
Kevin Griffis, an Obama spokesman, said the campaign hasn't put a priority on lawn signs, noting that they don't vote on Election Day.
"Obviously, we want people to feel like they are part of the campaign and want them to be able to show their support for Senator Obama," Griffis said. "But the number one thing we prioritize in this race is building a human infrastructure in the state, and sometimes other parts of that campaign just don't receive the same priority."
The debate over the lack of signs will probably continue as Virginia Democrats ponder whether Obama made the right call by not producing more yard signs.
Signs can cost a campaign a little less than $1 apiece, so a $100,000 investment would be enough to give Obama a significant presence on Virginia's lawns.
Gail Gitcho, a spokeswoman McCain, said the Arizona senator's campaign printed up and distributing nearly 100,000 lawn signs in Virginia.
"Yard signs are an effective grass-roots tool, and we will continue to work to meet the demand of voters in Virginia who want to proudly display their support for John McCain and Sarah Palin by placing a sign in the front of their home," Gitcho said.
Many people leaving McCain's rally in Fairfax City two weeks ago were handed free McCain-Palin signs. Some were seen carrying several signs that they said they planned to put up in their neighborhood.
"I can save the campaign $250 by putting a sign in my yard," said Camille Farow of Oakton as she stacked more than a half-dozen McCain yard signs into her car after the rally.
Farow was referring to the contention among some political strategists that one well-placed yard sign equates to several hundred dollars in free advertising.
The theory is probably most applicable in local and statewide elections in which the candidates are not well known. In this high-stakes presidential race, neither Obama nor McCain is hurting in name recognition.
So are yard signs just a luxury that Obama can forgo in Virginia so he can spend more on television, offices and staff?
Scott A. Surovell, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, doesn't think so.
"Signs are incredibly important, because supporters want to show their support and they want to show their neighbors who they are supporting," Surovell said. "It can be very frustrating when their neighbors have John McCain signs and they can't get Obama signs. A lot of people feel like they are fighting this fight street to street, house to house, and when they see McCain signs everywhere, it makes them feel alone."
Surovell and other Virginia Democrats also said yard signs can still be a persuasive tool in winning over supporters in neighborhoods that may be trending Democratic.
True, most people will base their vote in a presidential race on issues. But as Democrats seek to broaden their party's base by reaching out to voters in conservative rural and outer suburban communities, Surovell said, some who are inclined to vote Democratic might side with the GOP because they think all of their neighbors are Republicans.
"Some of the campaign people will tell you yard signs don't vote. I agree yard signs don't vote, but I do think they make other people vote," Surovell said. "I think the emotional impact of seeing a lot of yard signs in their neighborhood, it reinforces to people they are making the right choice."
One Obama supporter from Loudoun County posted a diary on the liberal Web site Daily Kos last week lamenting the inability to get Obama lawn signs.
"We're purple," the supporter wrote, referring to a Loudoun neighborhood with shifting political allegiances. "But you can't tell that this week, because there are x literally zero Obama signs anywhere to be seen. In fact, I've been up and down the neighboring streets, too, and the story is the same there."
With no signs coming from the Obama campaign, the Fairfax County Democratic Committee spent several thousand dollars to buy 18,000 Obama signs. But Surovell said he has to ration them to meet demand and make sure they last until Election Day, when they will be needed at polling sites.
In more rural stretches of the state, where Democratic committees do not have the same resources as Fairfax, it's not so easy for them to spring for Obama signs.
Last week, Graham left a scathing comment on the Virginia blog on Obama's Web site demanding lawn signs.
"O.K., here we are in what is supposedly a battleground state, that all the analysts are saying daily could be the state that decides the ballgame on Nov. 4, and we can't even get signs to people who want them," Graham wrote. "Something is seriously wrong with this picture."
He added, "I have been telling our local Obama supporters the past several weeks to be patient. My own patience is worn to the nub at this point ..... GET US SOME SIGNS OUT HERE ASAP."
Obama's Virginia campaign did receive several thousand Obama-Biden signs two weeks ago. But it decided to distribute them only to volunteers who went door-to-door last weekend.
"After you knock on just 40 doors, make sure you stop by the office in your area to pick up your free Obama-Biden yard sign," Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, wrote in an e-mail to Virginia supporters.
The e-mail offended some.
"Earn your signs? Give me a break," Chris Duckworth, an Obama volunteer from Chantilly, said in interview. "You should be honored that I would put the sign in my yard. Is he such a celebrity that I have to earn the right to put a 29-cent sign in my yard? ..... We should be saturating the neighborhoods with this stuff."
To get your fix of Virginia politics throughout the week, go to blog.washingtonpost.com/virginiapolitics.
September 24, 2008; 3:41 PM ET
Categories: Barack Obama , Election 2008/President , Election 2008/U.S. Senate , John McCain , Tim Craig , Virginia Notebook
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