What Do Political Yard Signs Accomplish?

Are pint-size political billboards worth the paper they’re printed on? I’m thinking no.

“I love watching people waste their money on signs. It’s great. Keep spending your money that way. What do you learn from a sign? What does a sign tell you?” Democratic consultant Judy Stern says in a Sun Sentinel story. “Signs don’t vote.”

But popular wisdom says that name recognition, especially in local races, is valuable. When you’re voting for a bunch of folks you’ve never heard of for city council, it helps if you’ve seen one candidate’s name around town.

“You don’t even really think about it,” says Marietta College psychology professor Mark Sibicky in The Plain Dealer. “It’s a classically conditioned response. All things being equal, we like the familiar name.”

Another report backs up the name recognition theory and suggests it also has more to do with the person putting up the sign. They say each sign is worth 6-10 votes, not because of the sign, but because the person putting up the sign is likely to encourage votes in other ways.

But knowing who’s running doesn’t help you make an informed decision. In national elections that name recognition is kind of useless. No one puts a Romney sign in their yard to make sure their neighbors have heard of him.

It seems like the problem is that political yard signs generally don’t communicate a message. It’s simply a name. All they’re getting is awareness. It doesn’t communicate your reasons for voting. It doesn’t contain any message that could persuade other voters. It’s merely a badge of pride, a flag of identification, letting people know where you stand. At best, it gives people the illusion of popularity (“There are bunch of Joe Jones sign in my neighborhood, I bet he’s going to win!”).

That works for U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich: “This is better than a paid billboard, because it’s a personal endorsement. It shows that I have support at the neighborhood level.”

I wonder why candidates don’t put any slogans or messages on their yard signs? I’ll admit you couldn’t fit much of a message on any yard sign and it’d come down to bumper sticker slogans, which might not be any better (why don’t campaign bumper stickers have, um, bumper sticker slogans?). But wouldn’t that at least communicate something? According to the experts, that’s a rookie mistake. According to sign printer Dale Fellows in The Plain Dealer, political signs should feature the candidate’s name as big as possible. The fewer words the better.

Bah. I wish signs actually communicated something.

On the plus side, it’s likely they’re not a decisive factor: “Well, I think that it would be very unusual if any of these tactics actually were decisive in elections,” says Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science at Fordham University in an NPR story. Well, not usually: “But at the margins, mobilizing voters can be very important. And particularly in close, competitive races, they can make a difference in determining the outcome of an election.”

I guess election marketing just sucks.

4 thoughts on “What Do Political Yard Signs Accomplish?”

  1. Radio Free Babylon had a photo the other day with a yard that had both a Romney and Obama sign in it. He mused that hopefully that wasn’t what they were spending their time arguing over at the dinner table.
    The next day or so he posted a follow up and each sign now has either a “his” or “hers” written on the sign as well.

  2. I think it’s especially funny when neighbors have opposing signs. Talk about awkward! But opposing signs in the same yard is hilarious. Though something tells me a house that can put up opposing yard signs can have a productive conversation. They’ve clearly learned to disagree well.

  3. I don’t know if you can put your finger on why signs are important, but they are. My testimony is from both years I ran for a city council. Both times, I was pretty sure I would win, and the first year, I began to stop replacing signs that got knocked down or stolen. The second campaign, I just put out fewer signs. Both times, very concerned people asked me how my campaign was going, if I was having problems, if they could help, etc. Part of the deal is that people just expect to see signs.
    On the subject of message, that will depend on where the signs are. In car-crazy America where people drive past and look at the sign a milli-second, there’s only enough room on a sign to see maybe three words. Conventional wisdom is that the candidate wants the message to be her or his name. Now in walkable neighborhoods – I’m thinking of some areas of Seattle – houses are 2 inches apart, there are sidewalks with landscaping, and there are a lot of people who walk in the area. The signs there are more likely to have slogans or longer messages, because people will have eye time to read the messages. That would be wasted on signs people drive past.

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