One is that they're nine points behind in the polls two weeks before the election, as is the case with former governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) in his race for Congress against Elizabeth Colbert Busch in South Carolina's First District.
Another is that they've dropped heavily in the polls, as Mr. Sanford did, seven points since the last poll.
A third way is that they take out long ads that details the troubles they're having in their campaign, which again is precisely what former governor Sanford did on Sunday in a 1,200-word personal message in the Charleston Post & Courier to explain (or whine about) his "rough week."
(That his "rough week" was due in part to his ex-wife's lawyer filing a complaint of trespassing, didn't help. Nor did his timing about his "rough week" that coincided with Boston's worse, rough week.)
A fourth way you can tell a campaign is in big trouble is when the national committee of your party pulls funding for you, which the Republican National Congressional Committee has done.
But the fifth and most visible way is when you resort to goofy stunts that beg of desperation, like when Mark Sanford debated a cardboard cutout. Worse, it wasn't even a cardboard cutout of his opponent, but rather (for some reason) Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who represents a district 3,000 miles away on the other coast.
But still, even if you think you're making a really great point by debating a piece of cardboard, wouldn't any rational campaign try to make that point with a cutout of the candidate you're running against?? Maybe the Sanford brain trust thinks voters in the First District hate Nancy Pelosi and are trying to connect the two women. But still -- if the whole point is to have a Big Visual that will get attention for your floundering campaign, this visual that they used totally misses the far, far bigger (and far, far, FAR more obvious) one.
You'd also think they'd learned something from Clint Eastwood's disastrous, wildly-ridiculed appearance at the Republican Convention when he debated an empty chair. But hey, who knows, maybe this is the future for the GOP. Maybe there's some Republican Election Handbook that suggests debating inanimate objects. At least they won't answer back and ask you tough questions -- or any questions. Like, "Seriously, Mr. Sanford, what in the world are you doing?"
Add it all together and you get major desperation and incredible stupidity. And how you know a campaign is in serious trouble.
The election is May 7. Set your DVR to record The Colbert Report on Comedy Central May 8. You'll likely be seeing Stephen Colbert discuss his victorious sister, and perhaps have her on as a guest.