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Virginia Notebook: Signs of Discontent For Obama

Tim Craig

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

By Tim Craig  |  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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"Yard signs are an effective grass-roots tool"

As a Democrat, I am very happy that McCain's campaign thinks this.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2008 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Ditto to Anonymous 4:43pm.

Good lord, people. Get a grip on yourselves. If you want a yard sign and you think it's that critically important, get yourself to the Obama store and buy 10. Buy 20. Distribute liberally.

OR go do something that actually wins votes, and bring home your shiny yard sign badge of honor that you not only put things in your yard, you give your time to make sure it matters.

Posted by: NoVA Dem | September 24, 2008 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Signs might not be that important, as some in this article say, but the Obama campaign doesn't seem to have been managing expectations about signs very well. When party officials and regular volunteers are this confused or upset about signs, it seems that there has been a failure to effectively communicate the campaign's priorities.

This sign issue might be a bit annoying or misunderstood, but at the end of the day I'm not convinced that this is a huge issue, however. Just a little explanation - which came in the form of the above quote from Kevin Griffis - goes a long way to helping us ordinary Obama supporters understand what's going on . . . Thanks.

Posted by: Chris Duckworth | September 24, 2008 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Our problem is that if you order on the BarackObama Store Website or DemStore, they are extremely backordered. We placed an order at DemStore on June 13 and haven't received our signs yet.

I'm afraid at this point that they will come after the election. Our HQ volunteers said some people have been in upwards of 9 times asking for signs - and going away empty-handed.

People are upset - and something needs to be done about it.

Posted by: Crystal | September 24, 2008 5:16 PM | Report abuse

Sorry - not June 13. September 13.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2008 5:17 PM | Report abuse

To NoVA Dem:

I'd gladly order signs online if I had any confidence they'd arrive before inauguration day. I ordered a car magnet and made a donation after Biden was announced over a month ago, but I still haven't received my magnet.

Come on, people! If you don't want to waste time and money giving out free signs and stuff that's fine. But don't make it so hard for us to get our hands on the stuff ourselves!

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2008 5:20 PM | Report abuse

To jump off from the point made by Chris Duckworth, our angst is a result of having been misinformed for several weeks by our otherwise solid local Obama campaign contacts that they would have signs for us to distribute, only to then be told late last week that in fact their policy all along has been to deemphasize signs in the overall get-the-message-out strategy.

To then address the issue raised by NoVa Dem above, we have gone to great lengths to get signs in our hands, actually dating back to about a week before we got the word from the campaign on their policy. We've got 300 signs on order, and are waiting not patiently due to the fact that they are on backorder, and nobody in officialdom can tell us when we might get them in hand.

To address the snarky part of the comment from NoVa Dem, we're a small committee in the reddest part of the state with 6-8 active volunteers trying to turn a city of 24,000 blue. If you or any of your NoVa Dem friends would like to pitch in and help us out, come on down and knock on a few doors and help us with our registration drives this weekend and next weekend and help us make phone calls and, yeah, bring some yard signs with you.

Posted by: Chris Graham | September 24, 2008 5:27 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to thank everyone who's volunteered on Obama's campaign in Virginia. It takes commitment and guts to go door to door and work the phones, but every one who does helps bring the message about the need for change. And Virginia is going to be one of the most important states in this election. And, yes, volunteering and even just talking to neighbors (and correcting the Republican lies) are much more important than yard sings.
We need to get everyone out to vote and we need to get the message out.

Posted by: Erie Patriot | September 24, 2008 7:34 PM | Report abuse

Get the message out, agreed. TV commercials don't have legs, don't vote, and they help. Signs don't have legs, don't vote, and they help.

Posted by: Chris Graham | September 24, 2008 7:47 PM | Report abuse

My mom took matters into her own hands, and made her own yard signs last weekend:

Posted by: chuck | September 24, 2008 8:36 PM | Report abuse

This article is a spoof, right? For a far more accurate picture of the role of lawn signs in GOTV, I'd direct you over to Sean Quinn's post at, "BREAKING: Obama Campaign Organizers Trying To Win Election Instead of Get You Yard Signs"

Posted by: Tyler | September 24, 2008 9:01 PM | Report abuse

Obviously, Tyler, this is not a spoof.

Campaign volunteers want to show their support for their favorite candidate in the matter that is most traditional for their community. Lawn signs are a big deal in Virginia, and the Obama campaign is the first in memory to flaunt that tradition - in a state that LOVES its traditions.

Disregarding the wishes of volunteers and supporters won't cost the campaign their votes, but it's never a good idea to have supporters and volunteers disappointed with the campaign.

Considering the amount of funds raised by Obama, it would seem a minimal expenditure on printing would quickly alleviate this situation, leaving volunteers and supporters happy and the campaign focusing on other more critical matters.

Posted by: Stephen Gold | September 24, 2008 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I'm well aware that Virginia loves its traditions, and of course sadly aware that this is not a spoof.

There's a flawed premise in your reasoning, as it is not a "minimal expenditure" deal with yard signs. It would be wonderful if organizers had infinite time and resources, and there's nothing wrong with signs. But as the post I linked to above notes:

"They’re little feel good things, making you feel like you’re on the team. There is nothing wrong with that – that’s not the objection. The objection is that there is limited time for organizers to accomplish a wide array of prioritized tasks, and in this election they’ve chosen to prioritize identifying, registering, persuading and getting their voters to the polls. Yard signs cut into the organizer’s sleep time – literally.

A lot of people aren’t going to like hearing this truth, but organizers recognize that the majority of people who walk into offices for yard signs are, for volunteering purposes – and this is a technical term – useless. In the majority, these people are not going to knock, they’re not going to make phone calls. Instead, they are going to throw the organizer’s incredibly precious, sleep-deprived time down a bottomless abyss of irretrievability.

People who plant yard signs are maybe going to make their neighbors aware that they support a particular candidate, and in theory, if they live near voters who cede their opinions to peer pressure, they could theoretically be shading the influence of a vote here or there."

Posted by: Tyler | September 24, 2008 11:36 PM | Report abuse

Tyler, there are so many things wrong with your post, it's hard to know where to begin. However, I think this sentence you wrote says it all: "A lot of people aren’t going to like hearing this truth, but organizers recognize that the majority of people who walk into offices for yard signs are, for volunteering purposes – and this is a technical term – useless."

Useless? This shows a frightening level of condescension and disrespect for a campaign's own supporters and chief resource. It also shows a level of confidence that no campaign should allow itself to demonstrate.

When a campaign raises and spends over $400 million it is entirely understandable when grassroots activists scratch their heads in bewilderment over the lack of familiar and traditional resources to express their support. No academic discourse on the relative merits of lawn signs - whether from a pro-Obama website or a political science major - can substitute for the strong and enthusiastic support of as many people as possible.

On another note, Virginia editions of The Washington Post will likely carry the column on which we are commenting at some point. What will most readers – including those who are strong Obama supporters – think when they read this column? How sound can the judgment of a campaign be when it allows an easily remediable situation like this to percolate into a major daily newspaper in a critical swing state?

Posted by: Stephen Gold | September 25, 2008 12:45 AM | Report abuse

Tyler, you are overlooking a key fact in the reporting of this story. The primary people quoted as raising the questions are two local committee chairs. Not Obama campaign organizers. We have not asked the Obama campaign to divert the time and schedules of their organizers to help us get signs. We are the people on the front lines dealing with signs. We are also on the front lines helping the organizers find volunteers in our communities to help them do their work. What we've raised objection to is having been told all along that they were going to help us deal with the sign issue before pulling the rug out from under us here at a late stage in the game.

I now further object to the characterization of people who come in asking for yard signs as "useless." I don't know how much organizing work you've done, but the cardinal rule of what we're doing out here in the Valley is you don't call the people who want to help you out in whatever way they're offering to help out "useless." We're trying to win an election here, and it's not an easy task to accomplish. It's sure not easy when you have people who are supposed to be on your side calling other people who are on your side "useless" and turning their noses up in the air as if what they want to do to give support to the cause isn't good enough.

This, unfortunately, is the kind of attitude that Republicans mock when they unfairly call Barack Obama an "elitist." As a Democratic Committee chair who was an early supporter of Barack Obama, it saddens me to have to admit that this whole debate comes across that way to me, and also that the more I am confronted with the attitudes that we're seeing here in this thread and also in our talks with our Obama campaign staffers, the less confident I feel that the Obama team that I have long felt offered us so much in terms of hope for a better future will be able to deliver on that promise.

I retain hope that I will soon disabuse myself of that notion, though I fully expect to hear more about how "useless" our efforts have been before this is over and done with.

Posted by: Chris Graham | September 25, 2008 12:49 AM | Report abuse

To add to what Stephen said ... a reality point here is that even if the Obama campaign were to suddenly reverse course based on the attention that this issue is getting now and blanket the state with 500K signs, the bad PR that is sure to come of this will not easily go away.

And the question that those of us who have a strong feeling that this election is going to come down to a Webb-Allen-like razor-thin margin can't get out of our heads is ... is it worth winning the battle over the relative value of yard signs if in the process we lose 13 electoral votes to McCain?

Posted by: Chris Graham | September 25, 2008 1:03 AM | Report abuse

If signs are so unimportant, why do they print and distribute them at all? I mean, to take Tyler's point, we should all just organize, make calls, knock on doors and nary give a care about signs or bumper stickers.

But we wouldn't do that. Of course not. The campaign makes these things because the campaign acknowledges that signs and bumper stickers are important. So if they are important, the campaign should make enough. I feel like supply of signs and stickers has been limited to drive up demand, a ploy usually reserved for celebrity-related chotchkies rather than political publicity tools.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 25, 2008 7:15 AM | Report abuse

Make your own stuff. The Obama site gives you all the tools. I especially like the For Your Computer "night." There are even website resources! How cool is this?

I live in what has been a very Republican neighborhood in GA. I don't normally put up a sign, but plan to this week. I will print out a sign, laminate it at Office Depot or Kinko, get 2 sign sticks at Home Depot (in the house numbers section of Hardware) and decorate my yard with Obama blue.

Some are putting a poster in a front window of their home. That works, too.

Use the "For Your Computer" artwork at your office.

Forward the videos to everyone on your email list.

Add artwork to your website and/or blog.

Most importantly, encourage everyone to register before the deadline in your state.

That said, I do think availability of resources for those who go to the trouble to ask for them is a good thing. How hard can it be to have an almost overnight printing of some signs for local supporters? Businesses and local politicians do this all the time. Flood the state of Virginia with signs and be thankful for any votes they gather. Cover all the bases.

Posted by: Lois | September 25, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse

I'm an Obama support and would love to have a yard sign but I'm also trying to "live green" so I can show my support in other ways. Get creative - get a McCain sign and turn it inside out and make your own Obama yard sign :).

I ordered from the website and received my items within a few days.

Posted by: Recycle | September 25, 2008 10:21 AM | Report abuse

If yards signs won elections, Ron Paul would be the GOP nominee. That said, you can get Obama\Biden yard signs, bumper stickers and buttons at the following farmers markets:

Posted by: Todd Smyth | September 25, 2008 10:52 AM | Report abuse

We are having the exact same problem in Colorado.

Posted by: Caroline | September 25, 2008 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Or you can get them at the headquarters for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 25, 2008 12:29 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Tyler's trying to insult people who want yard signs - I just think he's pointing out that folks who come into the office wanting nothing but a yard sign are using up the time of folks that could be better spent knocking on doors. Door-knocking has demonstrable and dramatic effects on voter persuasion and turnout. Yard signs, by contrast, are good in local and even statewide elections where the goal is to increase name recognition of a candidate.

But if both candidates already have 100% name recognition, then the main thing yard signs are doing is making people who already support you and already are going to show up to vote feel better about themselves. (Unless you're talking about the infinitesimally small group of voters that are so on the fence that their vote in a presidential election will be swayed by how many signs they see). Now this isn't a bad thing - nothing wrong with making people feel good. But if you have limited time and resources, then those resources are far better spent in ways that will actually increase turnout and win the election for you.

Also, it seems the campaign has throughout all this used every possible strategy that it can to increase the kind of meaningful participation that can change minds, increase turnout, and win votes. Want an Obama sticker off the website? Donate $5 and it's yours. Want to go see the convention speech? Work your tail off door knocking and phone-banking (even at the speech itself). Want a yard sign to show everyone how much you support Obama? Then come down to an office and work for it. It's in this fashion that the grassroots organization has reached the heights that it has. Does it "offend" some people like Mr. Duckworth (quoted at the end of the article) that they don't get Obama swag for free? Maybe. But it seems to this observer that this strategy, while perhaps new by Virginia standards, is bringing in far more votes that it is losing.

(btw - not on the obama campaign, just an occasional volunteer hoping to earn her yard sign)

Posted by: Tara | September 25, 2008 2:41 PM | Report abuse

"Useless? This shows a frightening level of condescension and disrespect for a campaign's own supporters and chief resource. It also shows a level of confidence that no campaign should allow itself to demonstrate."

No, overconfidence would be a campaign that was more preoccupied with making its already existing supporters feel good than with actually winning the election. Yard signs don't vote, and they don't convince anyone else to vote. I'm sorry, but if your only contribution to the Obama campaign is to take up an organizer's time bugging them for a yard sign, that makes you a detriment to the campaign, not a benefit. Sorry if that hurts your feelings.

Posted by: James | September 25, 2008 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Anonymous!
"Or you can get them at the headquarters for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee."

I called the headquarters and they said to come by this evening to pick some up!

Posted by: DaveN | September 25, 2008 4:24 PM | Report abuse

"Yard signs don't vote." Neither do TV commercials. So let's cut that money and spend it on more coordinators to get more volunteers out talking to people.

"If your only contribution to the Obama campaign is to take up an organizer's time bugging them for a yard sign, that makes you a detriment to the campaign, not a benefit." That is arrogance at its height. But keep telling people you don't want their support. Eventually they will get the message.

Posted by: Chris Graham | September 25, 2008 10:41 PM | Report abuse

It's a sad comment on our nation if a vote can be swung by a name on a yard sign. Such a nation deserves whatever moron they get in the Whitehouse.

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I plan to vote for Obama based on the issues rather than what my neighbors might put on their grass.

Posted by: Dave | October 1, 2008 7:34 AM | Report abuse

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