The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The latest battlefield in a heated presidential campaign: Front yards bearing Biden signs

A sign in support of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden decorates a yard in Erie, Pa. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Across Pennsylvania — especially in rural communities — tens of thousands of yard signs supporting Joe Biden have popped up as his fans try to replicate how President Trump showed his growing support in the state when he was campaigning in 2016. And, just as quickly, some of those signs have been vanishing.

It usually happens in the dark of night, local Democrats say, but sometimes in daylight. Sometimes entire streets or neighborhoods are cleared. Pro-Biden Facebook groups have devoted long threads to strategies for deterring sign snatchers — one suggestion involves clear hair gel and pesky glitter, another electrifying the metal frame with a car battery.

While sign thefts are a problem every election year for candidates of both parties — and are an ongoing source of headaches for campaign staffers and party officials — some Democrats in Pennsylvania and several other states insist it’s worse for them this year and illustrates the emotional intensity of the coming election. While there are examples of Trump signs also disappearing, there hasn’t been the same level of public outcry.

Campaign staffers frequently roll their eyes at the utility of campaign signs, preferring to spend their time and money on higher-tech sales pitches. But as the Trump campaign proved in 2016, signs can create a momentum for a candidate all on their own, persuading people that siding with a candidate, even a controversial one, is safe.

Now, with many people stuck at home amid a historic pandemic, yard signs have become a stand-in for other shows of support for a candidate, such as attending a rally or marching in a parade. When that symbol vanishes, it can feel like a violation.

“The political landscape is so divisive at this point that one side literally cannot tolerate seeing the opinion of anyone else,” said Erin Shifflett, whose two Biden signs, illuminated by spotlights, were stolen from her front yard in southwestern Pennsylvania. “Not only can they not tolerate it, but they’re compelled to dismantle anything that they don’t agree with.”

Shifflett, a 46-year-old English instructor and writer, moved home to Somerset County just after the 2016 election from Dallas. Her community is filled with Trump signs and a massive Trump billboard — so she was excited when her Biden signs, put up in late July, got some car honks and thumbs up. Then one night, she and her husband heard the neighbor’s dog barking.

Her husband went “tearing outside and was just within seconds of seeing them grab the signs, jump in the truck and then drive away,” she said.

It’s the first time she has had a campaign sign stolen — and she has put up signs for Democrats in Alabama and Texas. She plans to replace the stolen two with six new ones. Her car is now plastered with pro-Biden magnets, as is her husband’s car.

“We have a giant flag coming, so it’s going to be higher up on the house — they would have to scale the house like Spider-Man to get it,” she said. “We may have to go to banners flying from the attic window, but we are determined to make sure that our voice is heard as well.”

In 2016, rural Pennsylvania was plastered with Trump signage — an early warning to Democrats that the Republican could win the state, which had voted for a Democrat for president every cycle since 1992. Pennsylvania ended up as one of three traditionally Democratic states that flipped to Trump, securing his electoral college win.

Ahead of that election, Jeff Eggleston, a Democratic commissioner in Pennsylvania’s Warren County, ordered a few thousand pro-Clinton signs and delivered them to rural communities in his minivan.

This spring, he figured the Biden campaign would, like Clinton’s, lack a mass yard-sign-distribution plan, so he came up with one of his own. The first batch of 12,000 was delivered in mid-July, and as photos circulated on social media, Eggleston received a crush of requests for more. So far he has helped with orders of more than 92,000 signs and expects to soon hit 100,000. The Biden campaign sells yard signs for $25 on its website, but county and state parties often have to arrange bulk orders on their own.

“There’s a lot of pent-up energy,” he said. “People want to express themselves.”

Just as the first signs were being delivered, Pennsylvania Democratic Party Rural Caucus Chairman Terry Noble said he caught three young boys on bikes — one wearing a “Don’t tread on me” T-shirt — with a ripped-up Biden sign. He snapped their photo and tried to explain that the country accommodates a diversity of opinions and that “people have the right to be heard in that debate and in that discussion.”

Noble, an attorney in Clearfield County, soon learned that his experience was not isolated. A pro-Biden Facebook group in Pennsylvania has filled with stories of missing signs — and strategies for fortifying signs from theft.

The easiest option, many have advised, is to put the sign inside a window or bring it in at night — or order a flag or banner that can be mounted high off the ground. Others have invested in motion-activated cameras or have placed signs within sight of doorbell cameras. One woman stapled her sign to a porch railing, and another positioned hers in a poison ivy patch.

And then there are suggestions about what to spread or spray on their signs to prevent theft or punish the thief: ground-up ghost peppers that irritate bare skin. A mixture of peppermint oil and Vicks. Fox, deer or coyote urine purchased at a sporting goods store. Slippery olive oil or grease. Vaseline and cayenne pepper. Vaseline and glitter. Vaseline, Tabasco sauce and glitter. Vaseline and pink glitter. Honey and glitter. Dog poop and glitter.

Glitter is key, according to numerous women in the group, because once it gets on your hands or in your car, it will be there for weeks. Maybe years. “Glitter is the herpes of the crafting world,” one woman declared in a social media post.

Noble has encouraged those who’ve had their signs stolen to write a letter to their local newspaper and has circulated a prototype. It reads, in part: “This isn’t either a joke or prank, it’s another step towards chaos and away from law and order and our Constitution. It’s thievery. . . . Ask yourself, ‘Is this the America I really want?’ We are better than this as a people and as a Nation.”

In Hermitage — a city of about 15,000 in western Pennsylvania — Police Chief Eric Jewell said five campaign signs have been reported stolen in the past few weeks, all of them pro-Biden. He posted a note on the city’s Facebook page, reminding everyone that “unlawful taking of any political sign owned by another is theft, a misdemeanor criminal offense, and offenders will be prosecuted.” But it’s difficult to do so, he said in an interview, as these crimes rarely have eyewitnesses.

“I know that this presidential election is a little more heated than the average, and I just want to make sure neighbors are respectful to each other,” Jewell said. “I just don’t want any thieving, period.”

Eggleston, the Democratic commissioner who is ordering thousands of signs, said that he doesn’t think the rate is higher than in previous years. The worst, he said, was in 2012 when some signs for President Barack Obama were slashed to demoralizing pieces. That year one of his friends mused about electrifying his Obama sign with a car battery, which Eggleston urged him not to do.

Among those stolen this year: Eggleston’s own Biden sign.

“I just kind of giggle to myself, because I’m like: The dummy who stole it doesn’t realize I have like 500 of them in my garage,” he said with a laugh. “What I tell everyone is: Don’t worry about it. Keep it in the back of your brain for Nov. 3 at about 10:30 when they announce that Trump’s lost, and think about those people who stole those signs and where they’re at and what they’re going to be thinking when that happens.”

Alton Northup, 17, put Biden signs in the front yards of his parents’ houses in Pennsylvania’s Erie County. The one at his dad’s house was the first to go, along with all of the other signs on the street. Then the one at his mom’s house was swiped, along with a Black Lives Matter sign — and a doorbell camera captured a man in a pickup truck doing the deed. Northup posted the video on Facebook and within 24 hours heard from someone who told Northup he knew the man, had seen the signs in the bed of his truck and provided an address.

After his dad scoped out the scene, Northup said he knocked on the man’s door, eager to have an earnest conversation about what happened and why. No one answered, so Northup rescued his signs from the truck and took them home. He added some American flags to the yards in hopes of communicating that Democrats are patriotic and love the nation just as much as conservatives.

Even though he had video evidence, he decided not to seek criminal charges.

“The whole idea of this election is to be a better nation, be a better people,” said Northup, who is excited to vote for the first time this fall. “And so I think that if we handle things more peacefully, instead of trying to hurt one another, that’s a much better way to go about your life.”