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Tulsi Gabbard May Lag In The Polls, But She's Winning The Campaign Sign Ground Game

Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard may not have qualified for the most recent presidential debate. But there is a category where she is the Democratic primary’s undisputed frontrunner – campaign signs.

It’s a good sign when a voter takes the mic at a campaign stop to tell a candidate why they could vote for them. What Rob Darrell, an insurance broker from Bow, told Gabbard as she campaigned in Weare earlier this month, is far less common - that his support was triggered by a Gabbard campaign sign.

“I was driving down to Manchester, and there was this big billboard, and there you were, Tulsi. So I started reading about you," he said.

“You just made the billboard guy on my team here really happy,” Gabbard replied.

"Billboard guy" is not a typical job on any campaign these days, but on Gabbard’s, it’s a key one.

Per FEC filings, the Gabbard campaign has spent close to a half-million dollars on billboards alone, that’s almost 15% of her campaign’s total spending. In New Hampshire she’s plowed at least $100,000 into Tulsi 2020 billboards, and they are all over the state, from the North County to Manchester to I-95 on the Seacoast.

“Look, I’m not as well-known as Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, and no one will vote for me if they don’t know who I am," she says. "So we are using every platform possible to introduce myself to voters, let them know who I am, my experience and why I’m offering to serve them as president.”

Credit Josh Rogers | NHPR

Jonathan Krasno is a political scientist at Binghamton University, and coauthor of a study on how campaign signs - lawn signs in particular - affect a candidate’s fortunes.

“I think of this as a moonshot from a candidate who is way behind," he says, "What can I do to stand out The candidates who had a lots of lawn signs out did better, not a lot better, a little better.”

So a sign-driven approach probably won’t deliver Gabbard, who polls in the low single digits here and in Iowa, the Democratic nomination.

But chances are, voters in New Hampshire are seeing more signs for Gabbard than for any other candidate, including one on Larry Levinson’s front yard on South Street in Concord.

Credit Josh Rogers for NHPR
Tulsi Gabbard campaigns in Weare, Hew Hapmshire

“I’m not opposed to putting more than one out, so I had like, mixed parties out on the lawn one time," Levinson says. "It doesn’t matter to me, I’m just trying to get the right person.”

Levinson’s an undeclared voter. He said he happened to see Gabbard speak and liked her.

He says he also likes Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker, but adds that when Gabbard’s volunteers asked him to take a sign, he did.

So far, though, he says it’s prompted little discussion with neighbors or passersby.

"Seems like a lot of people even know who she is, and I think that’s what holding people back from asking about it.”

The Gabbard campaign has a solution for that: more lawn signs. That M.O. was on full display as voters exited Gabbard’s stop at the Weare library, where a campaign worker stood outside signing voters up for signs.

Gabbard herself even got into the act when Rob Darrell, the guy who told her her campaign’s billboard sparked his interest, would soon have a Tulsi sign on his lawn. 

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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