I saw the sign
Every year, clients ask us to order hundreds and even thousands of yard signs.
Despite rising costs of up to $7 per sign, campaigns continue to double down on them. Controversy erupts when candidates’ signs suddenly vanish in the dead of night and occasionally someone is even arrested for stealing campaigns signs.
It’s the favorite tactic of many grassroots activists yet is thoroughly hated by most political professionals.
While lawn signs are widely used in modern elections, their effectiveness has not been as widely studied as other forms of campaigning, such as door-to-door canvassing, direct mail, and telephone calls.
A 2016 academic study led by the now famous political scientist Donald Green of Columbia University studied four campaigns with randomized experiments and testing.
The findings included:
- After pooling the results of the four experiments and examining their averages, it appears that lawn signs raise vote shares, on average, by slightly more than 1 percentage point.
- Based on pooled results, lawn signs are “on par with other low-tech campaign tactics … that generate effects that tend to be small in magnitude.”
- Signs, in some scenarios, do not appear to be as effective when they make reference to a specific political party or ideology.
While lawn signs appear to have a modest effect on voting outcomes, they could, theoretically, provide an edge in certain tight elections.
One place where signs can provide an edge is in very small races with low budgets, where candidates are all but unknown to the public. Cindy Kam, a professor at Vanderbilt University, co-authored a study in 2011 in which yard signs for a fictitious county council candidate — “Ben Griffin” — were planted in lawns on well-trafficked streets.
A survey was taken a few days later asking voters to list their choices for the county’s at-large council seats. Five real candidates were listed along with the fictitious Ben Griffin and another made-up name. Incredibly, nearly a quarter of respondents listed the fictional Ben Griffin among their top three picks. Kam concludes that in races where little information is available, “having some sense of name recognition, having seen a name, having seen multiple signs that convey a sense of viability [and] electability can be useful.”
While not an experiment, in 2018 Democratic US Senate candidate Doug Jones, running in deep-red Alabama, placed 15,000 yard signs as a way to give voters “permission” to vote for him, by placing signs in the homes of prominent Republicans who couldn’t stomach the idea of Ray Moore.
What’s key is how they distributed them.
Anybody who wanted one first had to give their name, address, telephone number, and email address. The Jones supporter could pick one up from a neighbor, too, but only if they could also supply contact information. In my mind, this was the yard signs’ most important contribution, with the data becoming a resource for the campaign, helping it organize and then mobilize its dedicated supporters and volunteers.
Which supports what operatives have always said, which is that IF yard signs are distributed they should be used to collect volunteer support or information.
So there you have it – signs (sadly) have a place in modern campaigning. Give me a call at 206-423-0120 and let’s chat about your campaign. I won’t even give you grief for ordering yard signs.