The Popularity and Irrelevance of Our Lawn Sign Wars

Lawn signs don't make a discernible difference to electoral outcomes. So why are they so ubiquitous?

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Yard signs spotted on October 31, 2012 (Suzanne Moore via Twitter)

According to all the polls, I live in a reliably blue state (Massachusetts). But judging by the quadrennial lawn ornaments that are slowly overtaking the shrubbery in my New England coastal town, it appears that I may also live in something of a swing neighborhood.  

As the days have ticked down to election day, the sprinkling of "Obama" and "Romney" signs has become a full-court-press flood of entire opposing team benches: Obama-Biden-Warren-Tierney vs. Romney-Ryan-Brown-Tisei. In many cases, those competing team rosters are planted squarely next to, or across the street from, each other, making me wonder if one side's signs didn't prompt the appearance of the other's. ("I'll see you your Romney sign and raise you a Warren! I'll even throw in a Tierney! Take THAT, you red dogs!")

As far as I know, our well-behaved town of Marblehead, Massachusetts hasn't resorted to the full-fledged vandalism of other places, where signs have been stolen, defaced, set on fire, or otherwise rendered mute. Perhaps it's because there is such a mix of party affiliations on display here, or perhaps it's just good old Yankee restraint. But seeing the in-your-face placement of opposing signs so closely juxtaposed still makes them seem less an enthusiastic display of democracy in action than a simmering standoff between the Hatfields and McCoys that's gaining energy with every passing day. 

Perhaps the signs started out as a way to make passers-by think about the various candidates. But driving by the increasing number of dueling sign fields, I've found myself wondering less about the potential merits of either camp than about how all those neighbors are going to be able to get along, a week or so from now. 

The entrenched feel of the signs also made me wonder what, exactly, they're supposed to accomplish. Seriously. In the course of political history -- especially in state-wide or national elections, when the candidates' names are generally well-known -- has seeing a yard sign ever changed a single voter's opinion? 

"No," answered Kevin Frank, communications director of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, without even a moment's hesitation. 

Perhaps, I prompted, back in the day ...? Maybe before television or other media?

"I'm not sure the day ever existed where [yard signs] made a difference for a candidate," he replied. "There's a very common saying among political operatives: 'Lawn Signs Don't Vote.' A lot of signs might be a sign that a candidate is doing well, but they're not doing well because of those signs." 

Tim Buckley, communications director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, was even more blunt. "At some point, all those signs become really more of a burden, because you're beset by people demanding more signs at certain intersections, or in their neighborhood. And the candidates want to see their signs out there, as well, so you have to produce boatloads of them, and you can't keep up with the demand. Even though they don't seem to make a difference."

He sighed. "In fact," he added, "I would love to see a study that says point-blank that they're ineffective, because that would make campaign workers' lives so much easier." 

There's a common saying among political operatives: "Lawn Signs Don't Vote."
Intrigued to see if there was such a study, I did a quick pass of what research I could find on the subject. I discovered that use of yard signs has quadrupled since 1984, and that a study by a Fordham University professor in 2005 found that having people hold signs at intersections encouraging people to vote, the day before an election, increased turnout in those neighborhoods. And the same Slate article that referenced the Fordham research noted an Auburn University study that found people who displayed a political sign, an American flag on holidays, or even some kind of banner or flags supporting the Auburn football team during football season, were 2.4 times more likely to vote than residents who displayed none of the above. 

But no research popped up that showed any impact of yard signs on residents voting for any particular candidate ... with the exception of local races where none of the candidates were known. In that case, two Vanderbilt researchers found (by making up a candidate and putting signs out for him) that voters prefer -- and are more likely to vote for -- candidates with familiar names. But Frank and Buckley readily admit that local, "low information" races can be exceptions to their "signs don't vote" rule. 

I also didn't find any research explicitly proving that signs don't work, although there was an interesting anecdote in the comments section of a 2010 post on the subject written by Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio. (Collins, by the way, is a great writer and mind who generally has really intriguing items on his "News Cut" blog.) A reader who'd run for a judgeship in Ramsey County, Minnesota described how he'd put out far more yard signs than any of his opponents, complete with a website address where voters could get more information about him ... and finished 7th. I also found a pretty entertaining 2010 rant by political consultant Mario Piscatella on the Daily Kos website that takes relentless aim at any campaign operator who still thinks yard signs "work." 

But if the general consensus, if not specific research studies, is that yard signs don't "work" -- particularly in national or high-visibility elections -- why has their use quadrupled over the past 28 years? And why are there so many of them in my town? 

According to two researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder and Susquehanna University, the primary reason is personal expression: to communicate either solidarity or defiance to neighbors (depending on the other signs in the neighborhood). Or, as Buckley put it, "I think they're less persuasive and more demonstrative." 

In other words, political yard signs aren't all that different from the pep signs and banners Auburn residents displayed for the Tigers football team. Which could explain the Auburn study's link between putting out a football booster flag or a political sign and turning out to vote.

Frank agreed. "I guess it is about rooting for a candidate like a sports team," he said. "It's part of the fun of being civically engaged. There should be some fun reward for civic engagement, right? I mean, every four years, we go to our conventions and wear funny hats, and wave banners ... and put signs up in our yards. Often, volunteers are proud of the work they've done for a candidate and want some way to express that. Of course, when you're talking about lawn sign battles, people can get carried away." 

True. But that, too, is consistent with the sports fan analogy. You don't have to look far at a major sporting event to find some kind of rude behavior aimed at fans of the opposing team. 

But is the notion of yard signs (or, for that matter, elections in general) as glorified sporting matches entirely healthy? Perhaps the four-fold increase in the use of yard signs is a sign not of a particular candidate's chances of winning, but of a less thoughtful, more polarized electorate that is more concerned with shouting its team affiliation out loud than actually pondering the complexities of policy, politics, or the consistency of candidates' positions. 

"Yeah, I know," Frank admitted. "That sports team mentality is, granted, part of our partisan problem in this country." He paused for only a moment. "But still," he added, "it's part of the fun of being engaged."   

The notion of politics as sport (as opposed to serious civic business) is not a new one, of course. But if there is a silver lining to the lawn sign wars, perhaps it is the fact that for all the noise, both Frank and Buckley also confirmed that although lawn signs may not work, what does work hasn't changed much over the years: simple, respectful and intelligent conversation with a voter -- one on one, and face to face.