In Texas politics, yard signs still popular

Fort Worth Star-TelegramApril 30, 2012 

Maybe it's a sign of the times.

In today's obsessively high-tech society, in which Facebook and Twitter dominate and there's an app for almost anything, many politicians are focusing on some decidedly low-tech basics to get their campaign messages across: distributing door hangers, campaign mailers and yard signs, buying billboards and going door-to-door in key neighborhoods.

Some say these traditional campaign tools will be more apparent than ever because two big election dates fall within weeks of each other -- the May 12 city and school elections and the May 29 statewide primaries.

"There was a time when people thought the wizardry of campaigns could replace grassroots efforts," said Brandon Rottinghaus, an associate political science professor at the University of Houston.

"Much of the way that social media was thought to revolutionize the process of campaigning hasn't come to fruition. It does help funnel people and connect people. But it's not changing the way campaigns campaign," he said.

"The best way is getting information to [voters] in person, going into neighborhoods, putting up yard signs and putting hangers on doors to suggest the campaign is active."

Today is both the start of early voting for the May 12 elections and the last day to register to vote in the May 29 primaries. And a bumper crop of campaign signs and billboards has sprung up throughout Tarrant County just as radio and TV ads are gobbling up more air time.

While Barack Obama proved four years ago that social media can be very important in an election -- and most area candidates avidly use it in their races -- politicians aren't giving up on the traditional ways that have gotten voters to the polls for decades.

"They're looking for the right combination," said Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas Pan American in Edinburg. "It's something old and something new."

Something old

Campaign signs dot the landscape throughout Tarrant County, promoting candidates for the elections and the primaries. Even more will likely be popping up in coming days.

The primary goal is to build name recognition for candidates.

But some say each lawn sign may represent six to 10 votes for a candidate. Those who put out yard signs may also encourage friends and relatives to support that candidate, according to the Measurement Standard, which gauges the effectiveness of public relations efforts.

Candidates in one of the hottest May 29 races -- the battle for the newly drawn 33rd Congressional District, which stretches from the Fort Worth Stockyards through Dallas' Oak Cliff neighborhood -- are among those trying to pull in those spin-off votes.

Eleven Democrats are in that race: David Alameel, Chrysta L. Castaneda, Domingo Garcia, Carlos Quintanilla, Jason E. Roberts and Steve Salazar, all of Dallas; Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks, the Rev. Kyev Tatum, Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Manuel Valdez and state Rep. Marc Veasey, all of Fort Worth; and J.R. Molina of Burleson.

The winner of that race will face the winner of the GOP primary, where Chuck Bradley of Fort Worth and Charles King of Cedar Hill face off. While many plan to ramp up phone banks and teams of block walkers, tens of thousands of dollars are already being spent in this race on campaign signs and billboards.

Alameel has far outspent his competitors: more than $17,000 on signs and nearly $500,000 on billboards, according to federal campaign finance records that show candidates' spending in the first three months of 2012.

Garcia spent more than $20,000 on signs; Veasey spent nearly $7,000 on yard signs; and Hicks spent $648 on yard signs and stakes, records show.

"You'll continue to see yard signs, door hangers," Rottinghaus said. "This sort of campaigning does help to increase turnout."

Something new

But candidates are also using social media more than ever.

Many candidates -- whether running for president or Tarrant County constable -- use Twitter to post their latest endorsements, promote campaign ads or campaign events, or interact with supporters.

And they use Facebook to give lengthier updates.

In mid-April, Democrat Paula Pierson -- a candidate for Tarrant County's newest state House seat, District 101 -- posted a picture on Facebook showing the front door to her campaign office that she said had been shot out and sent a shoutout of thanks to Arlington police "for their quick and thorough response."

She also updates supporters on endorsements she has received and her participation in campaign and community events.

Fellow Democrat Chris Turner, who is also running for the District 101 seat, uses Facebook to update people on his fundraising goals and upcoming campaign events.

He answers questions voters post, such as what the biggest issue is for the district during the next legislative session and receives notes of support. Recently, a supporter posted a photo showing that someone else's campaign wrongly put a sign in the supporter's yard. Democrat Vickie Barnett is also in the 101 race and uses Facebook to update voters about campaign events and thank her supporters.

"As society becomes more comfortable with social media, it's a good way to connect with candidates," said Ted Lewis, dean of instruction at Lone Star College-Cyfair outside Houston and co-author of the government textbook Practicing Texas Politics. "It lets you have a dialogue with that candidate and makes people feel that they are connecting with the candidate.

"It personalizes the election more with the voters."

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