Candidates, campaign staff, volunteers, and supporters have strong feeling about yard signs. The common argument against bandit signs is that “yard signs don’t vote.” Many people, however, believe that lawn signs are an important component of the ground game and political scientists have found that they do increase name recognition.
Do Yard Signs Work?
Political scientist Mel Kahn states that lawn signs help build name recognition for candidates. According to Kahn, each sign increases name recognition by six to ten voters for a candidate.However, veteran political organizers hate the task of handing out yard signs, because they believe that time spent on procuring and distributing yard signs could be better used on other voter registration and get out the vote operations. Others say that displaying campaign lawn signs gives voters a false sense that they are doing something substantive for the campaign.
Political Yard Signs: Pro
Campaign volunteers and candidate supporters love yard signs. It’s another way for them to publicly proclaim their support for a candidate and a set of values to their friends and neighbors. Many campaigns have also found them helpful as part of their campaign strategy to build campaign momentum and increase name recognition.
Campaign yard signs increase name recognition
Wichita State University political scientist, Melvin Kahn, has found that political yard signs increase candidate’ name recognition:
“They don’t actually produce voting a certain way. What they do is enable the first element to be reached, of getting candidates known. And they particularly work if they’re strategically placed, so that there are many that are together, so you get a bam, bam approach.”
Most candidates need to improve their name recognition and yard signs are one way to do it. Barack Obama famously eschewed campaign lawn signs because presidential candidates have near 100% name ID. But if you’re not a top tier presidential candidate, you need a strategy to increase your name recognition and yard signs are one proven tactic to increase a candidate’s name recognition.
Build campaign momentum
Imagine your an average voter driving home from work and your street, which was bare the day before, now had your candidate’s well-designed yard signs in the lawns of the majority of registered voters for a state Senate candidate. You were at dinner last night, so you missed that the candidate canvassed the neighborhood and offered any supporter a yard signs. You never talk about politics with your neighbor but think he is a smart person and trust his opinion. The couple down the block that you see working inside the polling place every year has the Senate candidate’s yard sign in their yard too.
You might have missed the candidate because of your dinner date but you know that people you trust are supporting him. You’re not interested enough in campaigns and election enough to log onto his website or call the office but you do vote. When you head into the polls on election day, you know where the candidates for governor stand but the only thing that you know about the state Senate race is the one candidate’s name. On election day, the state Senate candidate is at your polling place. You ask him why he’s running for office and from his answer you have a feeling that he is sincere person. While you usually vote for the other Party, you give this state Senate candidate a chance because it was clear to you that he was a hard worker because of the yard signs and seeing him at the polls.
Yard sign wars
Whether the yard sign war itself means anything or not may not be the point. Local newspapers and other media outlets often cover the yard sign war to unscientifically gauge which campaign has popular support. These newspaper articles can build morale or demoralization volunteers and supporters alike.
Volunteers and supporters love yard signs
In 2008, I worked for a presidential candidate that didn’t purchase many yard signs. When we didn’t get them in, word spread and they were gone within a few days. One supporter came in a week later to pick up a yard sign and left enraged shouting that he would no longer be voting for the candidate because of the yard sign debacle.
This is the not the norm. Most supporters’ have less superficial allegiance, but keeping supporters happy is tough and if giving them a yard sign will keep that happy, it’s money will spent. Many detractors use this argument against yard signs saying that these supposed volunteers won’t knock on doors or make phone calls. Every person who has ever worked as a field organizer understands this frustration. The truth is, however, that not every supporter will become your superstar canvasser. If someone is willing to put up a yard sign, it’s better than nothing and a dollar or two is a small price to pay for a happy supporter.
In addition, every rockstar volunteer started somewhere. I started volunteering more than ten years ago with my county Party after deciding that watching C-SPAN wasn’t enough. I started slow in my neighborhood, but have since worked on winning U.S. Senate, gubernatorial and presidential campaigns with territories as large as a third of Pennsylvania as a lead organizer. Everyone has their own story so campaigns should treat people who display yard signs as a great prospect for a small campaign donation or lit drop volunteer in their community.
Political yard signs: con
The Obama for President campaign is the most famous example of campaigns that have foregone campaign yard signs. David Axelrod, top Obama strategist, said in response to the yard signs controversy, “these yard sign questions are making my brain bleed. Please stop.”
I’ve outlined the major reasons for and against yard signs.
“Yard signs don’t vote”
Yard signs don’t vote is the rallying cry for campaigns against lawn signs. Political yard signs are what is called indirect voter contact. Examples of indirect voter contact lawn signs, billboards, parades, television and radio. Indirect voter contact is a great way to increase candidate name ID or to build momentum for campaign. In the case of TV and radio, indirect voter contact can also persuade undecided voters.
Direct voter contact includes tactics such as canvassing and phone banking. Campaign field staff want to spend 100% of their on direct voter contact because:
- Staff are evaluated by doors knocked, phone calls made, and volunteers recruited
- Particularly in campaigns where name recognition is high, direct voter contact is a higher priority
- Dealing with questions about yard signs can take up a lot of time: When will they be available? My yard sign was stolen what should I do?
If a campaign decides to place yard signs on public roads, which isn’t the most effective place to distribute signs, the campaign will have to monitor to replace stolen signs and to move signs that your opposing candidate has blocked with his own campaign lawn sign. The best place to put signs is on private property and at polling stations.
Similar to the yard signs don’t vote argument, some campaigns question whether the expense and effort that go into yard signs could be used for something else in line with their particular voter contact strategy.
Lawn sign opportunity cost
In addition to the staff time opportunity cost, field staff could be spending time making phone calls or knocking on doors instead of disseminating yard signs. Detractor say there is a financial opportunity cost. Political yard signs are relatively inexpensive but campaigns reduce costs wherever possible to focus their budgets on whatever tactics they believe are most valuable for their specific campaign.
Also, depending upon your local political climate, you may have many yard signs stolen. You can’t steal a TV ad and it’s much rarer to steal a literature piece wedged into a door or in a mailbox, but lawn signs do get stolen. If you have to take the time and money to reorder signs because of theft, this is would be an added expense that the campaign wasn’t able to plan for.
Some campaigns also eschew signs and primarily organize online. There are reasons to believe that online and yard sign tactics can work together.
Ultimately, some campaigns choose not to invest in lawn signs believe that the time and money spent on yard signs is used better elsewhere in the campaign.
Political yard signs: middle ground
So do yard signs work?
You might have noticed this in your campaign, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of middle ground in politics.
Lawn signs are not immune to our black and white political ethos. The truth is if you’re spending 20% of your campaign budget on yard signs you will lose and if you don’t buy any you are going to alienate people who could have been your best volunteers. Make sure that you take into the account what yard signs do for volunteers and candidates and make an informed decision to purchase the right type of lawn sign and the number that your campaign needs.