Home 2017 Races Be Heard, But Also Be Seen: How to Make a Campaign More...

Be Heard, But Also Be Seen: How to Make a Campaign More Visible


by Antonia Scatton, Co-founder of the volunteer platform, UpRise.org.

The most common thing I hear about Ralph Northam’s campaign for Governor of Virginia is “It just doesn’t seem like there is anything going on” or “you wouldn’t even know there was a campaign happening.” This may be an unfair characterization of a campaign that has probably broken records for voter contact in a VA Governor’s race. But despite record spending and massive operations, many Democratic campaigns, including the Clinton campaign last year, seem to lack a critical form of presence in the public consciousness.

Ralph Northam is a dream candidate. Our guy is a military doctor who spends his spare time volunteering at a hospital for dying children. Their guy was a lobbyist for Enron. You’d think Democrats would be inspired. We’re pissed off about Trump. But we’re not nearly as excited about our candidates as we should be.

Back in the days before our political campaigns became “professionalized” we used to do all sorts of things that we rarely do now. We had big public rallies. We had signs and slogans and songs. There used to be a theatrical element to politics, a sort of romantic patriotism about small “d” democracy that you can still find every four years in New Hampshire and Iowa.

That energy is what we are missing, now that we’ve narrowed the scope of our political campaign to only those activities which are targetable, trackable and mass-producible.

The Democratic Party of Virginia is running a massive and well-funded coordinated field operation with canvassing and calling. This is great. But as we have always known, these types of activities have marginal impact at best. Phone calling has very little effect. Canvassing in some cases has shown impact of 1.8 to 2%, but a new compilation of 49 field experiments from 2016 concludes that canvassing had no measurable effect.

So what does work? What does get people excited about a campaign? What makes a campaign feel like it exists? What makes it feel present and tangible? What gives it momentum?

Visibility is critical.

Visibility plays a critical role in making all other advertising and communication work. How? You feed people stories and messages through other channels of communication, and the visibility acts as the cue, triggering the sharing of those stories and messages with others.

That’s what Jonah Berger, marketing expert, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On and researcher at the Wharton School of Business, found in a comprehensive study of what kind of advertising actually delivers results.

Berger found that even if marketing efforts provided messages and triggered word-of-mouth, it didn’t last long enough to have an impact on behavior unless it was accompanied by visual cues in the environment that kept those word-of-mouth conversations alive so they could spread and multiply.

What kind of visibility could we be doing?

Lawn signs. Yes, lawn signs do “vote.”  Research shows that they work about as well as canvassing and at a fraction of the cost in money and time. Distribute them early and often. You can target them to strong Dems on high traffic residential streets.

Bumper stickers, buttons, t-shirts and hats. Give them away if you must. Consider them a highly effective form of paid advertising.

Branded materials work in many ways:

  1. they increase awareness of the election itself,
  2. they increase name recognition,
  3. they drive web search traffic,
  4. they indicate endorsement by the wearer/home or car owner
  5. they generate perception of viability (which generates momentum)
  6. and last but most important: they trigger word of mouth conversations!

These are not insignificant effects. Consider the endorsement or “third party validation” factor. If someone comes to your door representing the campaign, they are perceived to have an agenda. They aren’t thought to be neutral. A random neighbor, even one you don’t know, is perceived to be neutral. It’s like the difference between a Honda sales person telling you how great the new Civic is, versus your neighbor telling you how much they like their new Civic. Your neighbor is unlikely to be an expert, but their endorsement still carries more weight.

Hats, t-shirts, lawn signs and bumper stickers also function by giving others “permission” to support your candidate, especially in places where Democrats might feel outnumbered or even persecuted.

Donald Trump’s red hats served this purpose in his campaign. Where initially people were somewhat embarrassed to admit their support for Trump, seeing lawns signs and those red hats gave them permission to go public. It created safety in numbers for them to express their own support. As his numbers grew, it generated peer pressure and huge momentum.

In addition to signs and wearables, what else can we do to make our campaigns seem tangible to people?

Shopping areas. Wherever people in our communities gather, we should have a physical presence. At grocery and big box stores, we can organize people to wear t-shirts, hold signs and if allowed, hand out flyers. People can ask you to stop handing out flyers, but you can still stand there in your t-shirt holding your sign.

Fairs and festivals. Booths are nice. People are better. We should attend every fair and festival in twos and fours or even big groups. Wear t-shirts, hold balloons, hand out stickers, literature and other branded items.

Katie Sponsler, one of our excellent House of Delegate candidates here in the Richmond area, described attending a major festival with a team of supporters with t-shirts and signs. They combed through crowds in a “V” formation, talking to people along the way. It made a huge impression and apparently psyched out her opponent. You can do this with or without the candidate.

Cars. You can’t campaign at a homecoming game but you can put postcards on people’s cars. Put them in the driver’s side window, not under the windshield wipers. Anywhere cars gather, you can distribute postcards.

Campaign supporters should carry bumper stickers with them. If they see a car with other stickers, say, for Bernie, Hillary or Obama, they could leave a sticker for them with a nice note on the back. I got a Mark Warner sticker this way once. I stuck it right on my car.

Overpass signs. If you have a nice banner, a group of people holding it out over a freeway overpass at rush hour and waving can be seen by hundreds of cars, if not thousands, in a short amount of time.

These signs with lighted letters are surprisingly easy to make with a few dollars’ worth of battery operated LED Christmas lights and black foam core boards from the dollar store.

A nice benefit of visibility is that you can take pictures and video of it to share on your social media. You might even get some earned media coverage.

None of these activities are difficult to plan. They simply need volunteers.

I often hear campaign organizers say that if we have volunteers, we need them to canvass and make calls.

First, many, if not most volunteers do not like to canvass or call and won’t do it no matter what you tell them. Why waste these resources? Why not give them something else to do? Let’s reach out to all those people who signed up to volunteer and never scheduled a canvassing or calling shift and see what they’re up to.

Second, while there are almost no studies of visibility in campaigns, the evidence from the private sector suggests that it may even work better than canvassing. The only known study of the impact of people holding signs shows they increased turnout by 3.48%. The study is small, but given the scientific evidence we do have, we can’t actually say with great confidence that canvassing is a better use of people’s time.

What’s happening here in Richmond?

Many of the House of Delegates candidates in the greater Richmond area have decided that visibility makes sense. They are doing a great job on getting out lawn signs and even 4×8 signs.

UpRise.org is working with these candidates and local groups like Together We Will RVA and the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County (and Beyond) to organize teams that engage in some of these fun visibility activities.

Let’s try something different. What have we got to lose? We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing. Let’s take a chance on visibility.

People are tuning out. They are sick to death of politics and immune to advertising. If you want to get people’s attention, get out there in front of them so they will practically trip over you while they are going about their normal lives.

At the very least, people will know that we’re here!

UpRise.org is hosting a Voluteer Fair from 10-noon this Saturday, October 7th at the La Prade Bracnch Library in North Chesterfield (southwest of Richmond), where people can learn about these types of visibility projects and other campaign volunteer needs. We’ll also be doing some sign and t-shirt making. Please join us! Learn more and RSVP at bit.ly/uprisefair

  • linda1pebv

    This guy ‘gets it’. There are so many other ways to reach people than phone banking [which has ridiculously low impact rates because most people won’t answer the phone] and canvassing [powerful but there are lots of folks who can’t or won’t do it]. I love all of his alternative suggestions. We absolutely need to find ways to use these folks who are willing to volunteer and not demand that they fit into the only peg holes we want. You cannot tell me that visibility doesn’t affect voters sense of where the campaigns are. It may not change a vote to see a yard sign, but it WILL make a supporter know there are others out there on their team. I know that Win Virginia is using every arrow in the quiver to reach voters. WE HAVE GREAT CANDIDATES AND A LOT OF THEM. Find a way to make your voice heard and BE VISIBLE. We need every hand on deck.

    • Antonia is “she” not “he,” but yeah…she’s very smart, got to know her well on the Webb campaign in 2006 and quoted her extensively in my book, Netroots Rising (https://www.amazon.com/Netroots-Rising-Bloggers-Activists-Changing/dp/0313346607)

    • linda1pebv

      My error that first line should read: This woman ‘gets it’. Very powerful article and timely as well.

      • Antonia Gonzalez Scatton

        That’s okay, I’m used to it!

  • Jenn Michelle Pedini


    “Donald Trump’s red hats served this purpose in his campaign. Where initially people were somewhat embarrassed to admit their support for Trump, seeing lawns signs and those red hats gave them permission to go public. It created safety in numbers for them to express their own support. As his numbers grew, it generated peer pressure and huge momentum.”

    Antonia highlights a really important flaw in our strategy as Dems, we simply aren’t visible. What is OUR “red hat?”

    • ToddSmyth

      My assertion on why we don’t get yard signs or bumper stickers is that the people who control our campaigns make commissions off of direct mail pieces, TV and radio ads but not visibility items like signs and stickers. So, they funnel all the money into things they make money off of and they spread the ideas like “signs don’t vote.”

      • It’s very hard to argue with that theory, but the bottom line is it needs to change – ASAP.

  • Anne-Marie Leake

    The lawn sign picture does not support the story, since it shows signs for two candidates who were defeated in their primaries (Perriello and Woody).

    • I would argue that Tom had far too FEW lawn signs.

      • Anne-Marie Leake

        Conversely, Antionette Irving had fewer signs than Woody and still won by pounding the pavement non-stop for the last four years.

    • Antonia Gonzalez Scatton

      True, but it’s the only picture I had handy!

  • Christopher J Schäffer

    I’m a big fan of visibility. But i caution about putting flyers randomly on cars: This is considered littering in many jurisdictions. Giving a bumper sticker to a car with similar stickers would probably be seen favorably by the owner. But even that is technically littering.

  • Esther Ferington

    I like what you are writing about (except for overpass signs–often not okay), but canvassing is essential, too, for getting out the vote, so this is not an “either/or” choice.

    You write that “a new compilation of 49 field experiments from 2016 concludes that canvassing had no measurable effect.” That is not quite right, because it leaves out a key word: “persuasion.” The article that you link to should be read in full, because it’s about canvassing focussed on “persuasion” (changing voters’ minds). It says that canvassing is effective for “getting out the vote” but not effective for “persuasion.” Here’s a quote:

    “Campaigns clearly can also influence whether voters bother to vote at all. Indeed, another implication of our results is that campaigns may underinvest in voter turnout efforts relative to persuasive communication. Although the marginal effects of get out the vote interventions are smaller in competitive general elections, especially in presidential years, they are still clearly positive (Green, McGrath and Aronow 2013). Indeed, we found that our partner canvassing organization had effects of nearly 2.5 percentage points on turnout in the 2016 Presidential election. If these canvassers had been working on persuading voters instead of mobilizing existing supporters, our best estimate is that they would have generated fewer net votes.”

  • C Pruett

    I like the general drift of this — especially the idea of finding ways to channel people’s enthusiasm outside of traditional phone bank & canvassing (though I feel like a conversation about what the barriers are that keep people from canvassing is warranted before we give up on it…) I also want to point out that getting yard signs out in a meaningful way IS a labor-intensive operation, as I’ve witnessed the work a lot of people are putting in to getting them distributed.

    This seems like a goid ‘yes and’ approach but I’m wary of treating it as a substitute for traditional campaign tactics.

    I’m also sort of confused about the point re: voter enthusiasm — is his campaign getting the word out or aren’t they? Do the people noting Gillespie’s huge prsence online vs Ralph’s nonexistent one have a point or is this anecdata? is enthusiasm even a useful measure of anything? Is believing Ralph Northam is a dream candidate in our hearts useful in any way?

    • C Pruett

      Also we constantly got chased off of commercial properties when petitioning for signatures I’m not sure they’re gonna be more inclined to allow sign waving.

  • muppetzinspace

    I have been searching for a Ralph Northam bumper sticker for months and every time I asked the local democratic party or coordinated campaign office, they said they hadn’t gotten any. I’m a renter so I can’t display a yard sign but I do have a car and would have liked a bumper sticker. I’ve supported Ralph for a long time and would have liked to display my support in addition to voting and volunteering.
    And about that canvassing study, it concluded that canvassing was ineffective in persuading undecided voters but it concluded that it was effective in getting the base out to vote. (Which we really need this year.)

  • old_redneck

    Hmmm. There seems to be a difference of opinion here. The author of this article is a big supporter of lawn signs.

    I have been told several times by people from DPVA “lawn signs don’t vote” every time I ask them for lawn signs.

    Our local Democratic party has given up on DPVA . . . when we want lawn signs or bumper stickers, we either (1) order our own from various online suppliers, or (2) get them from the campaigns.

  • Kenneth Ferland

    We need to distinguish between persuasion to vote for a candidate and persuasion to adopt political positions or change overall partisanship. The former is going to be effective on only a narrow slice of the electorate, the later is practically never done except in ballot initiatives and the study agrees it is effective in that situation.

    We should do canvasing outside of election time for position persuasion, by NOT having this centered around a candidate you can focus on one issue at a time rather then try to get someone to swallow the whole raft of positions that an individual candidate holds. You want to be asking voters what keeps them from voting generic democrat and try to work to resolve thouse barriers which lead folks to not even consider democratic candidates.

  • True Blue

    A downside about putting flyers on cars; anti-choice groups often target church parking lots and parishioners’ cars with their not so random “propaganda” pieces, right before election day. Does this practice suggest that the separation of church and state is moot, or that the “littering” reflects views of the entire congregation, or that outside groups were encouraged by a priest or minister?

  • Guest

    I would rather the DPVA and the Coordinated Campaign spend money on operations and field organizers, then yard signs and bumper stickers. I have never voted for a candidate based on a yard sign before, but a canvasser has convinced me to change my vote during a primary. Signs are so we can preach to the choir, not bring new votes into the fold. I think it is the local committees job to raise funds for yard signs