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obama signs in berkeley

I have lived in Berkeley for about two and a half months. One of the first things I noticed on our drive in from Oakland airport was the sheer number of Obama signs in people’s yards. In fact, I have yet to see even a single McCain sign during my time here. (I thought briefly about putting one up as a breaching experiment, but I haven’t gotten my renter’s insurance yet…) What function do such signs serve in an area where you can be sure that pretty much everyone you meet already supports Obama? Add to this the fact that yard signs cost $8, and it becomes even more interesting. So what are (dare I say) the motives behind this phenomenon? Is it the desire to be a part of history? To signal solidarity with local culture? Something else? What do you think?

Written by Steve Vaisey

September 1, 2008 at 6:19 pm

17 Responses

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  1. What function do such signs serve in an area where you can be sure that pretty much everyone you meet already supports Obama? Add to this the fact that yard signs cost $8, and it becomes even more interesting.

    Maybe the second sentence is not unrelated to the first. Yard signs do not cost $8 a piece to produce. I think your point about making a political gesture in a (socially) cost-free way stands, though.

    What’s the ratio of Clinton to Obama signs, though?

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    Kieran

    September 1, 2008 at 6:42 pm

  2. I’m sorry, but what purpose does ANY lawn sign serve? Aren’t they always, like car advertisements, to reassure those who have already made the purchase?

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    Jenn Lena

    September 1, 2008 at 6:51 pm

  3. Kieran: When I got here, at least (on June 18th), there were no Clinton signs up and only a couple of Hillary bumper stickers. As an erstwhile Clinton supporter, that was one of the things that really surprised me, actually, since Chapel Hill was much more mixed. There are certainly none up now.

    I don’t really get your point about the production cost. I realize the campaign is making a profit on the signs. What are you concluding from that, exactly? My point was precisely that people are actually paying to advertise a product to people that have already purchased it, as it were…

    Jenn: Is that what you think it is? People reassuring themselves about Obama? If so, why do they need to reassure themselves when everyone else is “wearing the same brand,” so to speak? Shouldn’t that be enough reassurance?

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    vaiseys

    September 1, 2008 at 6:58 pm

  4. Having grown up in Berkeley, and now conducting my diss research in the Bay, it’s interesting to see someone take note of what doesn’t seem like a particularly unusual phenomenon for the area (although compared to other places in the country, it certainly is). In what I’ve seen driving and biking around, the amount of visible Obama signage isn’t that different than what we’ve seen in the past. The last time I remember seeing a significant amount of conflicting signage here around a POTUS campaign was between Dukakis and Jesse Jackson in ’88 (perhaps slightly less so with Nader in 2k).

    As for the “function” the signage serves, if I recall correctly only about 10% of Berkeley votes Republican in any given election (between 8 and 13%, but I could be wrong about this). You could really extend the argument to why anybody is putting up candidate signs in California at all after the primaries, given how safe the state is.

    That said, having had this conversation in Berkeley (and trust me when I say that people are quickly annoyed by the question), I’d guess to some degree it’s somewhat of a status symbol, but more so, it’s to signal involvement in the political process. There also may be a snowball element, as people in Berkeley are rather prideful of the disdain with which they’re held by the Right, and enjoy signaling their opposition to the Republican agenda even if it is politically meaningless in a presidential election (literally keeping up with the left-of-center markers of the Jones’). Finally – and maybe particularly in Obama’s case – there’s an emotional attachment to the candidate that may lead to the display of signage as identity markers (a rational choice model in which people buy signs to persuade the votes of others really doesn’t apply).

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    Clayton

    September 1, 2008 at 7:03 pm

  5. If you want even more bizarre, try the Obama window signs I’ve already seen here in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Not only do the vast majority of Canadians prefer Obama to McCain, but these signs are being posted in a place where everyone (save the odd expat) can’t actually vote.

    I suspect the ‘identity markers’ explanation offered by Clayton makes the most sense…

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    lukas

    September 1, 2008 at 7:37 pm

  6. Lukas: Wow, that is even more interesting!

    Clayton: Very interesting analysis. The phenomenon only struck me because of the “dualing signage” I had just left in Chapel Hill. BTW, by “function” I meant for the people putting them up, not for “society.” I just want to know what people get out of it, since (as you say) the ostensible purpose — persuasion — doesn’t really apply when everyone pretty much already agrees.

    I wonder if we might hear from some readers who have Obama signs up themselves. Does it ever shape your interactions with other people? Do fellow Obama supporters express solidarity with you in any way? I’m hoping we might get a little closer to the mechanisms involved.

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    vaiseys

    September 1, 2008 at 7:47 pm

  7. Probably similar mechanisms, in this case, to those involved in putting up Christmas lights in a mostly-Christian neighborhood. If you are asking from a “functional” pov…. What is the function of festivity?

    But the functional question–if too abstract, as above–doesn’t get at what is uniquely political about this, and what is specific to this political moment. I’d be interested in knowing who displayed a sign this year but not in previous years, or who displays a sign but doesn’t decorate the yard for other, well, holidays.

    (Also if the displayers are renters or owners… there is something so claim-staking, rather than just claims-making, about driving a stake into your lawn.)

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    Angela Jamison

    September 1, 2008 at 9:57 pm

  8. I don’t really get your point about the production cost. I realize the campaign is making a profit on the signs. What are you concluding from that, exactly? My point was precisely that people are actually paying to advertise a product to people that have already purchased it, as it were…

    What’s weird about thinking people are happy to give money to Obama to spend in other parts of the country, net of whatever benefit they’re getting locally from their lawn sign?

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    Kieran

    September 1, 2008 at 10:43 pm

  9. OK, Kieran, now I get what you meant. Nothing weird at all. I just wasn’t sure I understood what you were saying.

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    vaiseys

    September 1, 2008 at 10:45 pm

  10. Aren’t they always, like car advertisements, to reassure those who have already made the purchase?

    This is Gary Becker’s theory of advertising — that ads are a complementary good to the product they advertise.

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    Kieran

    September 1, 2008 at 10:48 pm

  11. Is this getting too complex? People wear buttons, put up signs, etc. to (a) persuade others — irrelevant in Berkeley unless you have a particularly obstinate neighbor; and (b) probably more important, to express a group identity and share in its collective solidarity — as when blacks wear (or used to wear) dashikis and Christians display the cross around their necks.

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    csf

    September 2, 2008 at 12:10 am

  12. I’m with csf. One could see it as analogous to public radio stickers too, I suppose. I tend to see it as a sort of Durkheimian churinga in places like Berkeley and, to a lesser extent, Chapel Hill, where the split is pretty overwhelming. I don’t have one in my yard (though there are several on our street), but do have stickers on the cars on the theory that they do travel to “red” areas :)

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    andrewperrin

    September 2, 2008 at 12:46 am

  13. csf and Andy: I agree with the Durkheimian group solidarity thing. For my part, I’m not looking for anything more “complicated” than that. I’m just wondering, however, if this collective representation ever gets manifested in any concrete interaction rituals that expressly involve the sign itself. More particularly, I’m wondering if anyone reading this blog has observed (or participated) in any, and if so, what they looked like.

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    vaiseys

    September 2, 2008 at 1:30 am

  14. Same question I always have for Democratic Party and Obama canvassers on the streets in San Francisco. Pretty much wasting their time, aren’t they?

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    anonymous

    September 2, 2008 at 3:19 am

  15. Berkeley in particular and California in general may be overspecified as far as the electoral vote goes but there’s also the issue of fundraising. I don’t think this explains yard signs (for this i think Angela’s expressive “Christmas lights” reasoning is parsimonious) but it would explain why the Obama campaign is still canvassing in San Francisco after the primary. Note that this may be particularly relevant since the Obama campaign has a kind of subscription (as compared to lump sum) model for soliciting donations from its supporters so it may not be about converting but about reactivating.

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    Gabriel

    September 2, 2008 at 3:07 pm

  16. I think that if we read the signs as signals to others about what candidate they should support, we misunderstand them. Instead I think they’re signals for what kind of person YOU are. And in Berkeley the politics of explicit progressivism are a status marker. So it’s not to show my neighbors who they should vote for, but who I am.

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    shakha

    September 2, 2008 at 4:30 pm

  17. A short side story…

    I am from a country where plurality is the ubiquitous. We have all sorts of differences, language, religion, castes, political parties and what not. You are less likely to find homogeneity on more than one dimension. Despite this plurality, people visit one another quite often – the society is as social as the word social could mean. Yet, when you go to a median household, you are bound to find effigies of leaders, lords, religions and parties. While, visitors might have issues with one or more of these effigies, they might also greatly identify with one or more other symbols. Hence, these symbols give a common ground amidst the many differences.

    It is a question of whether you want to see any focal symbol in isolation, which might only provide a lopsided interpretation, or to see it amidst other symbols, which might provide a richer picture. Diversity research has long plagued by unidimensionality…

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    Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode

    September 7, 2008 at 7:53 am


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