How effective are religious and political billboards?

On a recent long drive, I noticed two additional types of billboards compared to the typical ones selling good and/or services: religious billboards and political billboards. These do not comprise a majority of billboards in my observations – or even a significant minority – but there were at least a few. Such efforts raise several questions for me:

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  1. Do religious and political billboards reach a large audience compared to other forms of media advertising? Compared to some other forms of advertising, the audience along the road might be more known: traffic counts are known and drivers who use a particular road or go through a particular location are a particular group. This may be more targeted advertising with a known number of daily viewers.
  2. Do people seeing religious or political billboards respond to them similarly or differently compared to commercial billboards? The medium of a billboard requires a fairly simple message as people go by them at a high speed. An image or two and limited text are possible. People are used to commercial appeals. So, does anything change if a Bible verse is on a sign? I know there is a religious marketplace in the United States but does a billboard encourage more religiosity? Or, does an image of a politician and a short statement catch people’s attention? Are these just like other billboards, or, because religion and politics can be personal and contentious, do they provoke more engagement or more turning away?
  3. My bigger question about billboards and all forms of advertising: how much does it influence behavior? I saw these billboards, they caused me to think a little and I am blogging about the concept here, and any other ongoing influence is hard to ascertain. In my lifetime, I have seen thousands of billboards, just as I have likely seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements in other forms. I know they influence people but it is hard to connect the dots between billboards and change.

I will keep looking for and reading more unusual billboards. At the least, they help break up a long drive.

Numbers that highlight the scope of local governments in the United States

Some of my published work involves examining the actions of local governments. Thus, I was interested to read some published numbers about the size of local government:

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The United States has nearly 90,000 local governments, with hundreds of thousands of elected officials. Indeed, the vast majority of elected officials serve at the local level. Moreover, local governments employ over ten million workers and collect nearly a quarter of the nation’s total tax revenues (Trounstine 2009, 2010).

(Warshaw, 2019, “Local Elections and Representation in the United States”)

Americans tend to like local government as it reduces the distance between voter and representative and can also address local interests more directly. But, put all of those local government units together – and they are not evenly spread out depending on location, Illinois has more, and population – and many people and lots of resources are involved. Additionally, the interaction between local government and other layers and levels of government also requires a lot.

Chicago aldermen and affordable housing, public housing

HUD is examining the connection between the power of Chicago aldermen over zoning and development in their wards and affordable housing in the city:

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Housing activists and lawyers filed a complaint over aldermanic prerogative with HUD in 2018, alleging that allowing aldermen de facto veto power over most development proposals in their wards promotes housing discrimination by keeping low-income minorities from moving into affluent white neighborhoods.

The complaint against the city alleges that “aldermanic prerogative” helps residents who fear racial change pressure aldermen to block affordable housing projects by publicly raising concerns over school overcrowding, declining property values and other “camouflaged racial expressions.”

HUD officials continue investigating the matter and sent a letter to aldermen Dec. 1 asking them a series of questions about aldermanic prerogative, including how they define the term.

This reminded me of how aldermen helped shape the locations of public housing projects after World War Two. From the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

When Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949, which provided substantial funding for public housing, CHA was ready with a map of proposed sites for projects to be built on open land throughout the city, but the city council rejected this map altogether. White aldermen rejected plans for public housing in their wards. CHA’s policy thereafter was to build family housing only in black residential areas or adjacent to existing projects. This rejection explains the concentration of public housing in the city center on the South and West Sides.

In a city marked by residential segregation, numerous methods for keeping Black residents out of white neighborhoods, and white flight away from the city, the protection of certain areas has been a major emphasis. Affordable housing and public housing are typically viewed as unattractive land uses in whiter and wealthier communities with residents and leaders expressing concerns about property values, safety, and other matters with a sometimes stated and sometimes not underlying factor of race and ethnicity.

The need for affordable housing is great in Chicago, as it is in a number of major cities. But, who will compel neighborhoods or communities to accept that affordable housing should something everyone should bear responsibility for? Outside of some court cases and occasional legislative (Illinois and California as examples) or executive branch rumblings, the deck is stacked against affordable housing for multiple reasons. This includes an American emphasis on local government, particularly concerning local zoning and land use which is often set up to protect single-family homes. Americans often elect local representatives with the idea that they will protect the voter’s neighborhood and way of life.

Less clear from this article is what exactly HUD or others would if they find aldermen restricted affordable housing in the city.

Patterns among suburban voters in 2021 elections

With election results from Virginia, New Jersey, and other races coming in this week, a narrative about recent elections continue: suburban voters continue to sway elections. Here are the suburban patterns I have seen and heard observers discuss:

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-Enthusiasm among suburban Democrats was down in 2021 compared to 2020.

-Suburbanites were worried and/or angry about schools, whether that was for prolonged closures due to COVID-19 or concerns over curriculum and administrator control as opposed to parents.

-While Biden won over more suburban independent voters, enough tilted back to Republicans in these elections.

-This is a backlash involving race where white voters are exercising their influence.

As pundits, politicians, and academics sort out these multiple and possibly overlapping factors, this is a reminder of two things: (1) suburban voters continue to remain important in American elections (and both Democrats and Republicans are trying to appeal to them) and (2) the patterns and consequences of complex suburbia are not necessarily easy to predict.

Reasons for suburban legislators leading the Illinois Democrats

As American political divides currently sit in the suburbs, the tension between Chicago Democrats and suburban Democrats in Illinois is interesting to consider:

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In adding suburbia to the Democratic base, it turned out, Madigan also created a party that would no longer tolerate his Chicago ward boss style of leadership.

“Suburbanites tend to be less enamored of machine politics,” said Christopher Z. Mooney, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “Machine politics is about one thing: getting jobs. Suburban voters tend to be more concerned about corruption. They’re a little better off,” and thus don’t need the government jobs political bosses can dole out…

While many suburban representatives had benefited from Madigan’s operation, the ComEd scandal marked the moment that “a limit had been reached,” Mooney said. “They felt that his usefulness was over. The fact that they were from the suburbs allowed them to have some cover. Madigan’s political tentacles are more effective in the city of Chicago or Cook County.”…

Suburbanites haven’t just changed the way politics is conducted within the Democratic Party, they’ve also made certain issues more important to the party. Abortion, for instance. In the 1980s, the Catholic Madigan declared himself “100% pro-life.” In 2019, he supported the Reproductive Health Act, which ensured that abortion will be legal in Illinois if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and declares that a “fetus does not have independent rights under the laws of this state.”

The explanations here suggest the changes in suburbs have had significant consequences for politics. As noted above, corruption turns off suburban voters – who often like the idea of more virtuous smaller local government – and there are more pro-choice suburban voters.

I could imagine several other factors involving suburbia that have influenced this change:

  1. The increasing suburban population compared to the population of Chicago. As a proportion of Illinois residents, there are more suburbanites than in the past. This does not necessarily guarantee changes toward what suburbanites want but it could be a factor.
  2. The suburbs have changed in demographic composition. There are now different kinds of suburban residents, including more racial and ethnic minorities and more lower-income residents. The whiter and wealthier suburbs still exist in places but so does more complex suburbia. The suburban voters today are not just more educated whites.
  3. While the comparison above is between Chicago style politics and suburban politics, I wonder how suburbanites view the big city more broadly as compared to the past. Are more suburbanites interested in life in denser communities with more cultural opportunities (even if they are in the suburbs)? How essential is Chicago to the region and state compared to all of the activity – business, cultural, civically – in the suburbs?

“Soccer moms” replaced by “mad moms” in current California gubernatorial race?

According to one grassroots leader, the California gubernatorial recall election has been driven by “mad moms”:

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Now, as recall ballots are dropping in mailboxes, children are returning to school amid heated battles over mask mandates and skyrocketing cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant. Leaders of the effort to remove Newsom for office are confident that women, exasperated by the effect of Newsom’s policies on their children, are the reason they will prevail.

“It’s gas on the fire,” said Anne Hyde Dunsmore, campaign manager for Rescue California, one of the main recall groups. “The whole time, it’s probably the single biggest ingredient in the campaign, in our success.”

Newsom “didn’t understand mad moms, which are the same as soccer moms,” Dunsmore said, referring to the pivotal group of suburban female voters. “Don’t piss off mommy.”

Newsom and his allies agree that these women are critical, but they point to polling that shows that well over a majority of the state’s women approve Newsom’s handling of the pandemic. If these women turn out, they will be a major factor in helping the governor retain his job.

Multiple recent election cycles have included efforts to sway suburban women. These two labels seem particularly aimed at suburban women, not all women in California or the United States. The two major political parties both think they can convince enough suburban women to care about their priority issues under the right conditions (examples here and here) and the suburbs are the spaces where elections are won or lost.

The shift from the “soccer moms” label that goes back decades to “mad moms” in mid-2021 could be worth examining further. In the label itself, soccer moms referred to driving kids to and from local practices. They cared about the future of their children and their communities. Mad moms suggests women are fed up with what is happening and/or what the future might hold for their families and communities. Especially in 2021, anger can be a powerful mobilizing force in politics.

Presumably, the mad moms are conservative women who want different political outcomes. For the women of California who disagree with their perspective, what is an apt moniker for the other side?

Trying to attract suburban voters by fighting Critical Race Theory

The ongoing struggle for suburban voters now extends to Critical Race Theory:

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“In suburban areas, the number one cultural issue is critical race theory. The suburbs are on fire with anger,” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who works on congressional races. “We are at the beginning of this issue, not the end.”…

While critical race theory is animating the party’s base, Republican operatives say the issue will have wider appeal than other cultural wedge issues because some parents see it as having a direct impact on their children’s education.

Republicans are zeroing in on winning back the white college-educated, suburban voters that abandoned them during former President Donald Trump’s tenure. A new study from Pew Research Center found that Biden won suburban voters by 11 percentage points in the 2020 election after Trump won them by two points in the 2016 election.

“Parents all over the country have been mobilized because they do not want their children being taught they are automatically racist because of their skin color. I fully expect Democrats’ support for this controversial theory to be at the center of 2022 campaigns,” National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer said in a statement to McClatchy. “The most compelling electoral issues are those that focus on the issue of fairness, and that’s why critical race theory will be incredibly damaging to every vulnerable Democrat.”

While it remains to be seen how effective this will be, multiple aspects of suburban life and history may fit:

  1. Many suburbs were built on exclusion where whites worked to keep particular racial and ethnic groups out. Even as suburbs overall have become more diverse in recent decades, this has not necessarily occurred in all suburban communities.
  2. Suburbanites are often viewed as individualistic and emphasizing meritocracy. They feel they made it there by their own success and then want to live in their private spaces (usually single-family homes).
  3. While suburbanites in regular social life might want to avoid confrontation with neighbors, the emphasis on local control in suburbs means that national issues can spark conflict at the local level.

As the article asks, will this issue that touches on what suburbs are crowd out other common election issues like the economy or taxes?

The power of local politics to shape national outcomes

A deep look at the changing political tides in suburban Oakland County, Michigan ends with this:

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Such a post-mortem would likely reveal that the party’s disinterest in holding onto the suburbs prevents the rise of new Pattersonian Republicans with their own identities separate from Trumpism and that this will have long-term historical consequences.

“There are dozens, if not hundreds of these local or regional-level political power brokers who shape the outcomes of how our cities and regions function in ways that just aren’t visible to most people,” says Delmont, the Dartmouth historian. “We spend so much time talking about who’s in the White House or even who’s in Congress. But it might be the L. Brooks Pattersons of the world who actually determine, like: Do we have affordable housing? Do we have segregated cities? Do we have police forces that are militarized? The people who actually operate the levers of power are probably much more positioned like a Brooks Patterson than a President Trump or President Biden.”

National politics are indeed often built on smaller units of government. While a lot of attention goes to presidential elections (and this article also focuses on Donald Trump and how this connects to local politics), there is a lot of work that happens at the Congressional, state, and other levels that undergird the larger outcomes. A candidate or political party is going to struggle without grassroots, lower-level support.

This reminds me of my blog post Thursday about addressing housing issues municipality by municipality. We often look at particular issues at a national level. How to provide affordable housing? How to explain the rise and fall of Donald Trump? There are multiple levels of analysis possible and needed. In this post and on Thursday, the reminder is that the local level matters. Does Oakland County and all the local machinations about county seats and redestricting determine who will be president or which political party will control Congress? No, but add up a lot of counties in important areas – particularly with suburban voters who can be swayed election to election – and this can start to matter.

Another side to this is how American residents approach local government. Particularly in suburban areas, they like the idea of local control. Yet, local voting can be very low with turnout around 15-20%. If elections for county boards in places like suburban Detroit matter for national outcomes, shouldn’t suburbanites pay more attention local elections?

Targeting the right subset of suburban voters for the 2022 midterms

Politicians, strategists, and the media are looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections. Just like recent elections, the outcome may depend on particular suburbanites:

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That’s one reason Democratic strategists are taking steps now to set the terms of the debate in the midterms. To this end, they say they’ve homed in on a key demographic: suburban women who support President Biden but are at risk of either backing Republicans in 2022 or staying at home.

This demographic is somewhat distinct from the relatively affluent, educated White suburbanite demographic that is often discussed as central to the suburban shift to Democrats in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Instead, this group is a subset of suburban women who are more likely to be non-college-educated and somewhat less affluent, and tend to be drawn from the working class or lower middle class, or the ranks of small-business owners…

As Sena notes, for Republicans to win the House, they’ll have to win back some suburban voters in areas where Biden did very well. “The very first place Republicans are likely to go will be the suburbs, especially with non-college-educated White women,” Sena told me.

Fighting over suburban voters, and the variations within, is a regular part of American politics. Some suburban voters can go back and forth in their national political preferences and both parties would like to swing them to their side to insure victory.

As the article notes, the messaging has already begun in some parts of the country. It sounds like the ads thus far are for television. With the shift in recent years toward social media and text campaigns, does this suggest operatives are making use of all the possible tools or are particular demographics easier to reach through certain media?

If this is indeed one of the groups to reach for 2022, does this mean we can expect major political personas to make numerous appearances in certain suburban areas throughout the United States? It could be worth tracking which candidates and political figures visit which suburban locations in the next 20 months.

Involving public comment in a revision of the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices

There is a federal government manual that guides decisions for transportation engineers regarding roads. While it is notable that it is going to be revised for the first time in eleven years, there is also a process for public comment:

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The Federal Highway Administration released a draft of proposed changes late last year. The last time the manual got an update, a few thousand people, mostly transportation professionals, submitted comments. This year, 26,000 comments poured in from all over the country.

Some arrived from big companies, including the ride-hail and mobility company Lyft, the Ford-owned scooter-share company Spin, and the Alphabet company Sidewalk Labs. Each asked for a major rewrite that would, as Sidewalk Labs put it, “more closely align with the equity, safety, and sustainability goals of American cities, as well as those of the Biden administration.”

Others came from individuals. “There’s a broader set of people who see that these streets don’t work, that there are too many people getting killed, that they’re too unpleasant. It’s not consistent with what a place or a community should be,” says Mike McGinn, a former mayor of Seattle and executive director of the group America Walks. He credits those everyday activists with the new interest in the design document—and his own group, which urged thousands of people to submit comments to the federal agency…

The last time the manual got an update, the process took more than a year; with the volume of comments this year, it may take longer. A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration says the agency “needs to carefully consider all comments before determining next steps and the timetable for updating the manual.” Given the interest, that might take a while.

One of the reasons Americans like local government is that it is easier to interact with the officials who are making the decisions. For example, in a small town to a moderately sized suburb, a resident who has feedback on a municipal decision can probably even convey this face-to-face or in a public meeting. As the size of the municipality grows, it becomes harder to meet with local officials.

At the federal level, some might feel that decisions are made by an abstract group of people in a place far away. This idea has been expressed regularly in recent years: Washington D.C. is out of touch with the rest of the country.

However, this process of public comment described above offers an opportunity for people around the United States to comment on federal guidelines for roads. In the age of the Internet and social media, this is even easier to do: people can hear about it through email or social media feeds and submit comments online.

How exactly the federal agencies in charge here work through all of these public comments would be interesting to examine. Assuming they are all read or analyzed, do they look for the most common themes? Or, are some comments weighted more than others? This sounds like an important qualitative research process in order to find the patterns in all of the comments, discuss, and then incorporate (or not) into a revised manual.