11/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

VA Liberals Stake Out Territory With Yard Signs

At Obama campaign offices in Virginia's Tidewater area, yard signs are finally in.

This is welcome news for members of an activist group in Williamsburg called Liberals United and Undaunted (LUAU), who've had to drive through a gauntlet of McCain signs for weeks, leaving them feeling outnumbered and overwhelmed. It seems a McCain supporter has been handing out McCain/Palin signs from the back of his pickup truck, advertising his giveaways with a handmade "Families For McCain" poster and directing his customers with a painted arrow.

"I can't help it," said Tim Bernard, a professor at the College of William and Mary. "It's getting me more and more angry. All I've seen is McCain/Palin."

Still, Bernard can't decide whether he wants to put up a sign himself. "It's the gesture of it--you know, it's like you're saying, 'I don't want to talk, I don't want to engage, I just want to put up a sign.'"

His friend Paul Reagan concedes that a yard sign isn't the best means of communication, but when your house is flanked on either side by the opposition, you need to take a stand.
"It's primitive," Reagan said. "It's a way of staking out territory. I feel like there must be plenty of people who aren't McCain supporters, but it's the intimidation of all those signs."

Reagan, Bernard, and most members of LUAU are transplants to Virginia, having moved from other regions of the country--primarily the northeast--in the past 15 years. They like it in the South, where the pace is easy and people are generally friendly, but around election time, things can get tense.

That's where LUAU comes in. Founded in 2004 by Martha Howard and Arthur Knight, the organization allows liberals to come out in the daylight and make new friends. "People who live in more balanced areas of the world have no clue what it's like to live where there are really strong and never challenged areas of social conservatism," Howard said. "When we moved down here, I thought, 'now I have to walk the talk.'"

Walking the talk has meant building a healthy mailing list of like-minded people and then planning informal gatherings--"LUAU Parties"--where folks can socialize and talk issues. Nearly every gathering also involves some sort of positive action, like letter-writing to elected officials. The group is also good at raising money. In 2004, a potluck brought in around $2,700 for John Kerry. Last month, a backyard barbeque raised $5,000 for Obama.

These are dedicated liberals. So when they haven't been able to get their hands on basic yard signs, they've felt frustrated. Where have the signs been? Organizers at the local Obama office explain that up till now, the campaign hasn't seen yard signs as a priority. Instead, the campaign has emphasized opening offices and organizing a sophisticated ground game of phone calls, canvassing, and voter registration.

But yard signs matter, particularly in a swing state like Virginia, where the opposition can sometimes feel downright belligerent. Reagan points to a recent experience at the Newport News Shipping Terminal, where he works. When he slipped an Obama bumper sticker to someone in the office, the boss took offense. "It was like, you're voting for HIM?"

Reagan worries that the polls, which give Obama a slight lead in Virginia, might be deceiving. Mike Blum, another LUAU member, agrees. "If you ask people dispassionately who they'll vote for, they'll say Obama's the better choice. But in the voting booth, you never know."

So Blum wants his yard sign. So does Reagan. As for Martha Howard and Arthur Knight, they already have one--they ordered it themselves. Now that the big shipment of signs is in, Howard hopes to see every polling place covered with Obama signs on Election Day, when she's sure folks will have to stand in long lines.

"I think when people see all those signs, they won't give up and go home. They'll stand in line as long as it takes. The signs will make them think it's worth their time to stay and cast their vote for Obama."