Tulsi Gabbard banks on billboards, yard signs to get her message out

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — For presidential candidates, maintaining a steady presence in the critical early voting states can be challenging. But voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina see Rep. Tulsi Gabbard all the time — in the form of billboards and lawn signs.

Gabbard has spent $678,790 on billboards alone in the first three quarters of this year. Her campaign's focus on billboard advertising is unique — billionaire Tom Steyer recently made a billboard investment, but no other candidate appears to have listed the medium as a campaign expenditure in filings with the Federal Election Commission. Overall, she's spent at least $6.4 million since launching her campaign in February.

"Nobody does billboards. You're talking about it right now, you’re tweeting about it," Gabbard told reporters in Laconia, New Hampshire.

Some voters say they like what they see.

"Trusting your intuition when you're voting is really important," Brenda Rowe, 55, a resident of Concord, New Hampshire, said. "When I saw someone had a huge, huge poster on their barn in Henniker, I just felt this huge wave that this was coming and that people were behind her, not just my intuition."

That's not to say Gabbard hasn't invested in advertising on social media, where she attracts a highly engaged following. She's spent $582,000 on Facebook ads and $167,000 on Twitter before its ban on political ads, but her investment in billboards stands out in the 2020 field, as several candidates choose instead to invest in television advertising in the early states.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard throughout her political career
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Rep. Tulsi Gabbard throughout her political career
US Democratic Representative from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard speaks during a hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) on 'The Plight of Religious Minorities in India' on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 4, 2014. Several US lawmakers voiced concern for the future of religious minorities in India in a hearing that critics denounced as an attempt to influence upcoming elections. With polls starting April 7 in the world's largest democracy, several activists testifying before the US Congress' human rights commission expressed fear for the treatment of Muslims and Christians if Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi becomes the next prime minister, as surveys predict. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
First Hindu Congresswoman, Tulsi Gabbard, speaks at the unveiling ceremony of life-size statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Secaucus, NJ on May 31, 2014
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 25: Davan Gabbard (L), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (C) and Emily Tisch Sussman attend ELLE's annual Women in Washington Power List dinner hosted by Robbie Myers, ELLE Editor-in-Chief, with Gucci at Villa Firenze, the home of the Italian Ambassador, on March 25, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Elle)
MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r) – Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) appears on 'Meet the Press' in Washington D.C., Sunday, March 10, 2013. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 13: Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, attends news conference with democratic freshmen members-elect, in the Capitol Visitor Center. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 26: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, talks with Joe Scarborough, of MSNBC, before the Congressional Women's Softball game that pits Congresswomen against female journalists at Watkins Recreation Center on Capitol Hill. The reporters prevailed in a 11-8 victory. The game benefits the Young Survival Coalition that helps young women with breast cancer. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEB. 01, 2012: Tulsi Gabbard interviewed at Roll Call in Washington D.C. (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call Photos)
UNITED STATES - JULY 26: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, nominates Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 26, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark)
US Representative Tulsi Gabbard speaks during Day 2 of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 26, 2016. / AFP / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 25: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, greets Celestino Almeda, a veteran reprinting the Philippine Commonwealth Army, during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Emancipation Hall to honor Filipino veterans of World War II on October 25, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 25: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, attends a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in Emancipation Hall to honor Filipino veterans of World War II on October 25, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 06: Tulsi Gabbard speaks at Bernie Sanders 'A future to believe in San Francisco GOTV Concert' at Crissy Field San Francisco on June 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 17: Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Brian Mast, R-Fla., conduct a news conference in Rayburn Building on the Burn Pits Accountability Act, which evaluates the 'exposure of U.S. service members and veterans to open burn pits and toxic airborne chemicals,' on May 17, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 05: Abraham Williams (L) and Tulsi Gabbard attend the Sean Penn CORE Gala benefiting the organization formerly known as J/P HRO & its life-saving work across Haiti & the world at The Wiltern on January 5, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for CORE, formerly J/P HRO )

In a touch of irony, Gabbard's home state of Hawaii is one of four that prohibits billboards. Because of the ban, Hawaiian politicians and supporters in the 1960s began the tradition of "sign waving," which entails holding candidates' signs by the roadside and waving at cars.

Drivers traveling through Nashua, New Hampshire, on Thursday afternoons have likely seen volunteers participating in "sign waves," enthusiastically brandishing "Tulsi 2020" posters, playing music and cheering for Gabbard. Des Moines residents driving just off the main interstate of Route 235 have seen the same.

On her billboards in the early states, "TULSI 2020" greets passersby, while the tagline "A Soldier’s Heart" (Gabbard is a military veteran) appears on some roadside fixtures.

Additionally, her yard signs litter neighborhoods across New Hampshire and Iowa.

Gabbard's New Hampshire coordinator, Shani Pomerantz, her only paid staffer in the state, said while she sees the results of the billboard investment — at least $231,000 in the Granite State and neighboring Massachusetts — it's no substitute for the candidate herself holding events there.

"I don’t think it's ever been a replacement," she said. "It gives people time to get familiar with her, so when she shows up, they want to find out more."

The Steyer campaign began investing in both traditional and digital billboards in the first four primary states in early December as part of its multiplatform advertising approach.

"Most people drive, right? It's a different way of getting somebody’s attention," Steyer national press secretary Alberto Lammers told NBC News. "We know that people are going fast, we get one quick message, and that’s it. Everybody drives a car. Whether they listen to radio or not, they have to pay attention to the road, so it's helpful to be in front of them."

Gabbard, who is running in the single digits in the early states and at just over 1 percent nationally, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average, has less than a dozen paid staffers and relies heavily on a vast network of unpaid volunteers in early states to organize canvasses and plan candidate events, with many uprooting from their home states to work full time in Iowa and New Hampshire.

She does not have a formal campaign manager. Instead, Gabbard and her sister and senior adviser, Vrindavan, are the leaders of the operation.

The campaign said it "has a policy of not commenting on campaign strategy or strategists" and declined to discuss the approach behind billboards. It also would not disclose the number of billboards it has rented in the early voting states.

Gabbard called the use of full-time volunteers, coupled with investment in social media, "the best of both worlds, going directly to people to engage with them using technology."

Asked about investing more in billboard rentals than staff salaries and consultants, she emphasized how her volunteers are driven by passion rather than money.

"It's not a business, this is not an economic operation," Gabbard said in an interview at a Durham, New Hampshire, campaign stop last month. "This is about bringing people together who want to be here, to actually be the change … They're knocking on doors because they're passionate and they really believe. It's not about saying, 'Hey, how can I get a paycheck?'"

According to Brent Thomson, CEO of digital billboard company Blip Billboards, Gabbard's unconventional strategy could pay off with a "captive commuter audience" due to changing media habits of traditional TV viewers.

"Dollar for dollar, billboard advertising can carry brand-building objectives much farther because billboards cannot be skipped or deleted," he said. "When compared with other broadcast media, billboards have lower costs and higher retention and recall rates."

Though billboards are more expensive than Facebook ads — where 1,000 "impressions" cost about $7.19 — they seem to be making an impact with some primary voters, especially in states like South Carolina where Gabbard has made five trips in nearly 10 months as a candidate.

"I think it's a smart thing to do — you can't be everywhere," said Nancy Carder, a voter from North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

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