Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

09 Nov 2008, 20:57 p.m.

On Getting People Mad And Winning Anyway

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2008 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

The Obama 2008 campaign did many nontraditional things: running a black man, getting more of money and work out of volunteers, etc. The nontraditional refusals are intriguing. Obama's campaign did not splurge on tons of lawn signs or on "walking-around money" for canvassers in the black community.

Nate Silver awakened me to, and ridiculed, the lawn signs obsession.

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. -the Washington Post
Newsweek details on refusing to pay canvassers:
In South Carolina [primaries], the Obama campaign refused to indulge in the time-honored, if slightly disreputable, practice of dispensing "walking-around money" to activists and preachers in the black community. The Clintons, by contrast, continued to hand out the usual favors and cash. Obama not only won the black vote overwhelmingly, he also won the state of South Carolina by 30 points.


"I think we should do it," the Obama aide told a NEWSWEEK reporter. "It's just part of the culture here, and what will it cost? A couple of hundred grand? ... For a lot of people, if they don't get it, they just flat-out won't engage." (The Obama campaign ultimately refused to provide any walking-around money, though as Politico reported, some was provided by local sources.)

In each case we see a tradition of campaigning, one whose results cannot be measured or audited, that involves spending money. And Obama refused to do it, despite warnings and complaints from the traditional recipients of swag. And he won.

In this way the Obama campaign was like Google. The rules: be untraditional, don't do things if they're not provably, auditably productive, and use distributed communications/database tech. The strategy: get tons of unpaid workers to substitute for paid personnel, and reward them with good feelings.


10 Nov 2008, 12:23 p.m.

They still had plenty of lawn signs in VA. I snatched three from the Woodbridge office on the 3rd. Mostly just to have.

14 Nov 2008, 12:38 p.m.

I don't think a major national candidate like Obama really needs campaign signs the way a local office challenger, who needs to build recognition, might. Everyone not living literally in a cave knows that a man named Obama was running as a Democrat for President, which is generally the extent of information available on a campaign sign.

Even for Obama, though, I think the signs are useful to show support, particularly if you are in an area where being willing to show your support will encourage others to open their minds or be willing to show their own support. Sucky though it may seem, popularity of support has an influence on the undecided or initially unquestioning voter, as people ask themselves "what is it about this guy that so many people like?" and they go find the answers, which possibly sways them.

That being said, campaign signs, no matter how many you have, are only one part of a much broader strategy even of just getting the word out.

14 Nov 2008, 12:42 p.m.

Supporters who wanted signs made some of the same arguments as you, romulusnr. The campaign's implicit answer: if you want to encourage others' support, actively talk to them.

15 Nov 2008, 23:53 p.m.

I don't think that's a practical answer for everyone. First of all, most of my existing circles were already pro-Obama, so talking to them was of limited utility. Signs have lower, but broader potential, because they're passive.

That being said, I caucused, GOTV'ed, doorbelled, and phonebanked (though not always specifically for Obama) this year.

Honestly though, given the slowness of doorbelling and the number of voicemails and wrong numbers encountered during phonebanking, I think yard signs have a competitive ROI to either of those. While their kick is low, they're cheap and fast and easy and last longer.

So I just think that it's wrong to totally eschew signs. I simply can't stand outside my house all day and talk to everyone who drives by about Obama (or Gregoire or Gregory or I-1000 or I-985 or Prop 1).

Sumana Harihareswara
16 Nov 2008, 9:03 a.m.

As far as I can tell from the articles, the Obama campaign did not totally eschew signs. They just focused much more attention on direct interpersonal action. And I think one reason they did that is because you can more easily measure its effectiveness.<br/>