WILMINGTON — Occupying a mercifully short section of the year, campaign signs pop up in medians, yards and polling sites about a month before an election and filter out in the weeks after polls close. While they often market the candidate’s name and office, colors communicate just as strongly.
Since the mid-’70s, TV outlets have used maps to showcase state wins, blue for Democrat and red for Republican — a palette derived from Great Britain’s political system. It wasn’t until the faceoff between George Bush and Al Gore in the first election of the new millennium that colored election maps, denoting “red states” and “blue states” — as printed in the New York Times and USA Today, reckoning with its own history in 2020 — became a part of the mainstream lexicon.
Times graphics director Archie Tse revealed to The Verge red seemed to be the natural color to associate with the “R” in Republicans.
Today it’s normal to see red and blue accentuating signs, used in the design of candidate websites and even bespeckling wardrobe choices, such as ties and suits, during debates.
But some of this season’s campaign signs aren’t so straightforward.
Nelson Beaulieu, a school board incumbent, chose yellow and green to back his 2022 race. He said his daughter told him green represents wisdom, but Beaulieu chose the colors to eschew the divisive nature of politics associated with red and blue.
“When you serve in those positions you don’t want to represent either team, you want to represent the community,” Beaulieu said.
He also wanted his color scheme to stand out in a crowd and help people remember a difficult name.
“When you say, ‘Hey, do you know one of your local leaders,’ most of them say they don’t,” Beaulieu said. “Getting that name in front of the voter, giving them that reminder, is important, and I thought not going with red, white and blue would help those signs stand out.”
Nadine Gibson, an assistant professor in the UNCW Department of Public and International Affairs, who specializes in campaign management, said nonpartisan signs may be particularly effective for races like the school board where four seats are up for grabs.
“If they know your name, they’re probably more likely to vote for you if they are a low-information voter,” Gibson said.
The New Hanover County Board of Education race has been peppered with nonpartisan signs that defy party politics.
Dorian Cromartie decided to forego conventional colors associated with his party as well. The Democratic school board candidate said his red and yellow color scheme is personal. His grandmother, Rachel Freeman — for whom Rachel Freeman School of Engineering is named after — ran for the school board with the same palette on her campaign signs from 1989 to 1993. Cromartie’s choice of colors are intended to honor her.
Across the river, N.C. House 17 candidate Eric Terashima’s name takes up a large red section of the sign — predominantly the antithesis of the color associated with his Democratic party (though it also includes some white and blue shading). Campaign spokesperson Arthur Hill said Terashima, a retired Marine Corps colonel, chose the design because it’s patriotic and the colors stand for unity.
The impact of campaign signs has been well-documented in research over the years. A 1984 paper published in Social Behavior and Personality, bluntly titled “The effect of color in American political campaigns,” describes blue as ranking high on legibility and memorability, though it didn’t outrank black on yellow. The study did not find people preferred any color based on political party.
2015’s Frontiers in Psychology review researched effects associated with viewing the colors red or blue. Notably, red seems to give people the perception of dominance, while blue gives an impression of trustworthiness.
Another 2015 study, led by a Columbia University professor and co-authored by a High Point University professor, found effective campaign signs can net a 1% or 2% advantage in a race and simple signs without a partisan slant are more effective.
Melissa Mason, a Republican school board candidate, chose navy blue for a practical reason. Peter LaFond, Mason’s campaign manager, said they are easier to read for a certain part of the population.
“We can’t afford to lose 1.8 percent of the vote because color blind voters couldn’t read it,” LaFond said.
“It’s the same reason Mark Zuckerberg chose blue for Facebook,” he added.
The social media mogul told The New Yorker he was color blind back in 2010: “[B]lue is the richest color for me.”
Mason also was conscientious of the readability of the font, choosing the closest to the block print seen on ballots.
Gibson said the key for any successful sign is to be legible. Therefore, people can take in the information easily while driving. As well, she said signs with unusual colors can appeal to people who are not dedicated partisans — or unaffiliated voters that make up 70,725 out of the 177,657 registered in the county.
“There is some research that people don’t come to the polling place as prepared as maybe they should be,” Gibson said. “The ballot people are voting on is quite long, there’s lots of candidates and funky races where you vote for more than one candidate.”
In addition to eight candidates running for four seats on the NHC school board, the local commissioners’ race will have four candidates to choose from to fill two seats.
Gibson said a discussion in one of her classes this election season pointed to a candidate who had the most effective signage: Veronica McLaurin-Brown, another Democrat running for school board.
McLaurin-Brown’s signs are emblazoned with her face and give voters more information than others without saying a word.
“She’s obviously a Black woman, so if you are a person of color, you may feel more connected to someone from your community,” Gibson said. “It’s the best sign we’ve seen in Wilmington.”
If unique colors, easy-reading or a friendly face don’t stand out, Soil and Water Conservation District candidate Lance Capps may have the sign for you.
The red, white and blue marker includes a notable slogan: “Kick Stupidity in the Face.” In extra small print, the candidate also lays out his stance on the important issues: “Hates Nazis. Loves Olive Garden.”
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