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Saturday, Oct 27 2012 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: A sign of the times: Way too few signs

By The Bakersfield Californian

Soon the countdown to Election Day won't be measured in days but in hours. In a lot of races, local, statewide and national, that means the gloves have come off and the campaigns have turned negative and sometimes personal. Negativity, of course, is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Is bringing up a candidate's DUI a relevant statement about character or an unnecessary assault on a purportedly changed man? Does it matter if the charge is leveled by a proxy so that the beneficiary himself remains unsullied by the negativity? It's all so complicated.

I can think of only one avenue of campaigning that is largely untainted by the potential for negativity: Yard signs. There's no room on that 3-by-4-foot lawn placard for a breakdown of your opponent's extremist voting record -- only his/her name. And that rather defeats the purpose, doesn't it?

What we have in yard signs is the one pure mode of positive expression in a political campaign: bright, cheery declarations of promise and patriotism in colors and fonts meticulously scrutinized for maximum psychological impact. Sure, you can torch your neighbor's Obama sign, or spray-paint "Romney" into "Romnesia," but most people see those acts for what they are -- relatively rare juvenile aberrations.

In the past, I've considered yard signs fairly accurate predictors of outcome in local voting. It may seem overly simplistic, but the candidate who appears to have the most signs on display usually wins, because (1) if he/she has enough money to buy a lot of signs, he/she probably has enough money to mobilize a full, credible campaign; and (2) voters don't allow signs in their yard unless they actually like the candidate.

I bring this up because I don't see very many yard signs this election eve, especially for the presidential candidates. In my downtown neighborhood, I see an abundance of City Council and school board campaign signs but exactly one Obama sign and one Romney sign.

I am not the only one to have noticed this. Co-worker Evan noticed the dearth of presidential signs (and, to a slightly lesser extent, bumper stickers) and raised the question a week ago. Others -- and my evidence is strictly anecdotal -- report the same thing. What does it mean?

I figured it was the fact that California is not in play in this election. It's in the blue bag for Obama. Why get worked up? But California wasn't in play four years ago, either, and we saw plenty of McCain and Obama signage. I'm still spotting eight-year-old "W" window stickers.

This isn't a local phenomenon. Walter Kirn, the California/Montana/New York-based author of "Up in the Air" and "Thumbsucker," tweeted this on Oct. 16: "Never seen a presidential election with fewer yard signs, bumper stickers, and so on. I have my theories as to why."

Margot Roosevelt, a political reporter for Reuters, responded: "I've been 2 all swing states,+ agree. Socialmedia?"

Two tweeted rejoinders: @HeckPhilly: "the civil has largely gone out of civil society. Why paint a target on oneself?"; and @AlPaul: "Also could be of course that people don't give a damn, really."

At least three online message boards have been batting the topic around all month. These two posts, from the Straight Dope site, are typical:

"In 2008 I definitely saw more," wrote Diceman. "But 2008 was a situation without an incumbent. I live in Illinois. What's the point of putting up a sign this time around? The ones I have seen are for Romney, which I think is cute." And from DMark: "Definitely far, far fewer signs in Michigan this year. This state leans Democratic, and the relative scarcity of Obama 2012 signs is quite noticeable. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the bloom is off the rose."

That last observation might have nailed it. By the yard-sign measure, at least, voters don't seem all that energized. And for a president whose base is notoriously ambivalent about voting -- for anybody -- that's not a good sign.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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