Stop! Don’t tear down that Sign! You’ll regret it!

Let’s not lie to each other.  You want to tear down your opponent’s sign, don’t you?

It would give you some sense of satisfaction and maybe a bit of guilty pleasure, wouldn’t it?

And it’s a reasonable feeling to want to remove or destroy an opponent’s sign, especially if there’s more of theirs than yours in a certain area, if they have a sign where you think yours should be, or even worse – if they have a sign up where one of yours used to be.

No matter the reason and no matter how strong the temptation to take down an opponent’s sign, don’t do it!

In case that was not clear, let me broadcast this as loudly as possible:


Doing so may not prevent you from winning your election, it could cost you your entire political career.

First, I can say that on nearly every campaign I’ve been a part of for the last twenty plus years, signs are always a problem.

You never have enough.  Your opponent has more.  Yours aren’t getting out fast enough.  Your opponent has their signs in yards and on the street before you do.

The list of sign headaches can go on and on and on and on…..I hope you get the point.

Candidates often obsess over signs far more than they should.

Are signs an important part of a political campaign?  Absolutely.

And if you haven’t already picked up your free copy of our book 5 Secrets of Winning Campaign Signs, you should stop reading this article and click this link and get it now.  

Once you finish the book (it’s a quick but valuable read) you then need to come back and finish this article.

So where were we?  Oh yeah, signs are a headache on way too many campaigns.  Candidates get so caught up in the placement of signs that they often stop fundraising, walking precincts, and doing the the tasks necessary to win an election.

I’m sorry to inform you that getting your signs up everywhere does not fall under the category of “necessary to win an election.”

Conventional wisdom amongst campaigns and candidates is that you must have signs to win.  That’s simply not true.  I’ve won campaigns by doing plenty of mail and not having any signs.

Still I’d prefer to have signs on my campaigns.  They are a very big part of building a candidate’s name ID,  reminding folks that an election is coming, and getting a secondary commitment from voters who say they are supporting you.

Signs however don’t tell a candidate’s story, and even the biggest, most beautiful signs don’t persuade voters to make their ballots for you.

As we political consultants say, and frequently need to remind our candidates, “Signs don’t vote.”

But signs can cost you votes.

You can lose votes for putting your signs up on someone’s private property without their express permission.  It doesn’t need to be written, but it needs to be clear you’re putting a sign up.

However, the biggest way you can lose votes is by taking down, damaging, or destroying an opponent’s sign.  Even if you think no one is around to see you do it, in today’s world where a smart phone a practically a prosthetic to most peoples hands, there’s a great chance you’re being videoed.

And if you’re being videoed there’s an extremely good chance that the video of you removing or ripping up your opponent’s campaign sign is going to be a viral Internet sensation that destroys your campaign — if not your political future.

Think I’m being overly dramatic about this?  Then let me tell you the story of two signs vandals who likely would have won their elections, but their lack of self control towards their opponents signs led to their subsequent electoral defeat and fall into political oblivion.

The first story involves a State Assembly candidate named Rich Sybert.

Sybert was a Republican running in a Republican Primary in a safe Republican District.  Sybert was well ahead of his Republicans opponents.  If he won the Primary, as long as he didn’t do something monumentally stupid, he’d be elected to the California Assembly that November.

Sybert however decided to do something monumentally stupid during his Primary campaign.  Yep, you guessed it. He took down his opponent’s signs.

Not only did he take down signs, he lied about it, and his opponent’s campaign had video footage of him doing.  While this wasn’t the social media age, the act and the cover up were too juicy for both the major Los Angeles TV and print media not to cover.

The Los Angeles Times reported:

Caught on videotape tearing down an opponent’s campaign signs, Assembly candidate Rich Sybert acknowledged Thursday that he initially lied about the incidents and said he was “embarrassed and ashamed” of his actions.

The admission came a day after Sybert, in an interview with The Times, had dismissed rival candidate Tony Strickland’s claim that Sybert was behind a rash of vandalism to Strickland’s campaign signs. Sybert ridiculed Strickland’s complaint as a “publicity stunt” and said he was in bed at 3 a.m. Monday, when one sign was torn down.

“Oh, please!” Sybert said Wednesday, when he was informed that Strickland had filed a complaint with the Ventura County district attorney. “I’ve got better things to do. I’m in bed at 3 in the morning.”

But Sybert quickly recanted Thursday when Strickland released a grainy camcorder video showing four separate incidents in which a man scurried around in the darkness, tearing down Strickland signs in Thousand Oaks and Camarillo earlier this week.

Sybert’s campaign quickly tanked.  A friend of mine who was walking precincts for Sybert after the sign incident went public said voters literally laughed in his face when he knocked on their door and asked them to vote for the notorious sign vandal.

On Election Day, Rich Sybert only got 7% of the popular vote. Ouch!

For years to follow campaign professionals and hard core volunteers on Southern California races admonished candidates, rookie campaign managers, and overzealous volunteers to not tear down anyones signs.  Rich Sybert was the example we’d use.  No one wanted to lose because they pulled a Sybert.

Yet over time this cautionary tale seemed to fade and 16 years later a sitting District Attorney of one of Southern California’s largest counties decided to screw around with one of his opponent’s signs and wound up paying the price for his indiscretion.

In 2014, Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach was seen removing one of his opponent’s signs in broad daylight.  When he realized he’d been caught, Zellerbach then decided to fix the sign and undo his dirty work.  But now he was being recorded and that video was released to the media.

The Zellerbach sign story even went national, with The Washington Post covering it:

There are many ways to win an election. Raising money or being an incumbent helps. Looking like George Clooney doesn’t hurt. Kissing babies, well, who knows what that does, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Taking down your opponent’s campaign signs and replacing them with your own is not on this list. Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach allegedly tried anyway.

In later April, the district attorney, who is running for reelection against prosecutor Mike Hestrin, used a government vehicle to go put up campaign signs around Indio, California. One of Zellerbach’s employees, a supporter of his opponent, took a shaky-cam cellphone video of his boss allegedly making room for his own signs by removing some of Hestrin’s.

When the local media started to report on the incident, and local authorities began to investigate, he first said knocking over the signs was an accident. Security cameras caught someone who looked like Zellerbach taking down three of his opponents’ signs outside of a convenience store earlier in the day. Zellerbach said the store owner gave him permission to take down the signs. He later e-mailed a local newspaper to say, “On April 23 I made mistakes, which I regret.”

That was all she wrote for Zellerbach, and I can tell you that had it not been for his vandalism of that sign, Paul Zellerbach would likely today be in his second term.  How do I know?  I had a poll in the field during the same time the sign incident came to light.

During that Election I was advising two police officers associations who were supporting Zellerbach’s challenger.  To figure out our strategy, we commissioned a poll.  Because news had not really gotten out about Zellerbach’s sign vandalism, it didn’t affect the poll that told us the race was tied.

But as in the case of Rich Sybert, once the media jumped on Zellerbach for inappropriately touching his opponent’s sign, things went south for him.

Zellerbach was defeated by his opponent, 55.25% to 45.75%.

Where are Sybert and Zellerbach now?

Frankly, no one cares.  But you should.  Had either of these men shown just a little bit of self control and left their opponents signs alone, they most likely would have won their elections.  They didn’t and therefore they didn’t.

You therefore have a decision to make as you run for office.

When you become frustrated by an opponent and their obnoxious signs you can’t seem to get away from, will you risk being the next cautionary tale like Rich Sybert and Paul Zellerbach?

Or will you take a deep breath, count to ten, and walk away without touching the sign?

My advice is to leave your opponents signs alone at all costs.  You’re running to win the Election and improve things for your community, not to tear down people signs.

Besides, tearing down legally placed signs is a job we taxpayers entrust out-of-control Code Enforcement Officers to perform, isn’t it?