It's the time for the signs

It's the time for the signs

The holiday season is over, and as the garlands and holiday lights come down the campaign season decorations are going up.

The March 15 Illinois primary is still two months away but candidates are already getting their names out on election signs along Champaign County roads.

Voters will see more and more in coming days, especially after University of Illinois students return and the Republican presidential race shakes out a bit, local party officials said.

"There's a time when it's too early" — say, a year before an election — but signs usually start popping up "somewhere between two to four months out for a primary or an election," especially in contested races, said Champaign County Republican Party Chairman Kyle Harrison.

Still, Harrison was surprised to see signs already out for several GOP candidates.

Jim Acklin of Ogden, candidate in the 102nd House District Republican primary, started putting up 4-by-8-foot signs in early December and has about 85 in the ground. The district stretches from Champaign south to Paris.

"I've held back on the smaller yard signs because number one, they're not gonna last through the whole winter probably. And you get some sign fatigue. There's that fine line between getting your name out early and people just getting tired of seeing them," he said. "With the big ones, we try to get them into the ground before it freezes."

The relatively mild winter so far is a factor, officials said.

"Right now, I would say the early birds are out," said Al Klein, chairman of the Champaign County Democratic Party. "I think it has as much to do with the unusually soft ground. They're shoving them in the ground because they can. Ordinarily this time of the year, you just physically can't do it."

The signs are made of cardboard, folded over and stapled on the edges, and varnished on the outside so they'll last in rain for about 90 days, said Jim Murphy, president of Fastsigns in Champaign. The cardboard fits over a wire wicket that gets pushed a foot or more into the ground.

"When you get into temperatures you're getting right now, trying to get that wicket into the ground is tough. It's like a big staple," Murphy said. "When the ground freezes, good luck."

Murphy typically supplies up to a half-dozen candidates with signs during election season, via a subcontractor, depending on how many people are running and how tight the race is. They order 100 to 150 signs at a time, starting about six months before the general election and 90 days before the primary, he said.

"So far, we haven't seen a lot of demand, at least at this point," Murphy said. It's hard to gauge, though, as "nowadays everybody goes out to the Internet," he said.

Websites including "Signs on the Cheap" can provide a "gazillion cheaply printed" signs, said Mike Waterstradt, longtime employee at Dean's Print Graphics.

Candidates usually invest in more signs for the general election than the primary, and summer is busy season for yard signs, experts said. If there are local contested races in the primary, the signs come out; if not, you won't see as many, Murphy said.

Klein expects to see more early signs from local Republican candidates who face contests in the March primary. Many Democratic candidates, including state Sen. Scott Bennett of Champaign and state Rep. Carol Ammons of Urbana, are unopposed, he said. Candidates usually buy their own signs, and they don't want to spend that money until there's an actual contest.

"There's no rationale to put signs out right now," Klein said.

But a campaign finance filing period just ended, so he said business should pick up soon.

Presidential sign season still to come

Delegate hopefuls for Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will also hit the streets and pass out signs after the UI is back in session and "we get closer to March," Klein said.

The national campaigns work directly with those delegates to round up volunteers and get signs and other materials out at the local level, Harrison said.

Despite the crowded Republican presidential primary race, Harrison doesn't expect to see many of those signs until the field shakes out a bit after the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.

"A lot of people, including myself, sit on the sidelines until you figure out who is really a player," he said.

"In this community, there aren't too many people who'd want to have a big Donald Trump sign in front of their houses," added political science Professor James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

The larger-than-usual field will probably lead to more signs overall, said political science Professor Christopher Mooney, director of the institute.

"It won't change people's minds, but whenever there's competition you're going to get more of everything," he said.

Promotion pays off, professors find

Do the signs have much effect?

Voting decisions are driven mostly by party identification, so they don't play a big role, especially in national races where candidates are already well-known to voters, Mooney said. Signs don't provide any information about the candidate except perhaps a slogan, sort of "like selling soap," he said.

But they can help lesser-known candidates further down the ticket, experts said.

"There's certainly evidence that they increase name recognition, which can be very important in local races where people don't know much about the candidates," Kuklinski said.

In a study cited on the industry website signs.com, two Vanderbilt University researchers placed four large signs for an imaginary school board candidate on a street where about half of the parents would see it every day driving their children to school. Three days later, the PTA surveyed parents about their preferences in the upcoming election, and parents who drove on that street were 10 percent more likely to cite the fake candidate as one of their top three choices.

"That's pretty convincing evidence," Kuklinski said.

Acklin said one of the first things people say when he knocks on doors is "Oh, I've seen your signs."

"Especially when you're not the incumbent, and don't have that name recognition, I think that's really important," he said.

Bye bye buttons, bumper stickers

Signs can also help mobilize voters and keep campaign workers energized, Mooney said. Residents who put signs in their yards are more invested in a candidate and more likely to go to the polls, he said.

And campaign workers who make phone calls and go door-to-door like to have something to show for it, he said.

There's also a "bandwagon factor."

"If you see a lot of people you know seeming to coalesce around a particular candidate, that is a cue of sorts for how one ought to vote, especially if one doesn't know much about a particular race," Kuklinski said.

Still, with the rise of Facebook and emphasis on televised campaign ads, signs may be dwindling as a campaign tool, officials said. They could follow the demise of campaign buttons and bumper stickers — which were popular in the chrome-bumper era but are harder to scrape off painted bumpers without damage, Mooney said.

"I think there's some sense that the use of signs has kind of dwindled, in part perhaps because of the extreme political polarization," Kuklinski said, citing a couple of recent studies on the topic. "People just are not always so eager to have their neighbors know they're Republicans when their neighbors are Democrats."

Murphy is still hopeful: "There are always going to be elections. And we certainly hope there will always be signs."

"Champaign-Urbana likes signs," Klein added. "We like issues."

Sign here

Under Illinois law, municipalities can't prevent the display of political yard signs on residential property, though they can adopt restrictions on size. State law prohibits signs on highway medians and within 100 feet from a polling place on Election Day. The rules in C-U:

CHAMPAIGN

— Candidates must get permission from property owners to place election signs in their yards.

— Signs cannot be placed on the public right-of-way between the sidewalk and the curb, to avoid any appearance of political endorsements by the city.

— Signs are limited to the size of real-estate signs in residential areas or the size of business signs in commercial areas.

— There are no limits on when signs may be put up (or have to be taken down), or on the number of signs that can be placed on a lot.

URBANA

— The city does not have any restrictions on signs on private property unless they become a hazard — it's so big that it blocks drivers' views, for example.

— Temporary political signs can be placed on public rights-of-way if they are removed immediately after the election.

— No signs can be affixed to traffic signals, streetlights, street signposts, utility poles, fire hydrants or other city or utility infrastructure; must be self-supported.

— Property owners can remove any political campaign sign directly in front of their property on the public right-of-way.

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