Friday, July 3, 2009

Why Do Political Campaigns Still Use Yard Signs?

Part 1 of our 10-part series: “21st Century Campaigning”

Since the beginning of American elections, there has been a presence of campaign images displayed to support a particular candidate or party. While it’s difficult to say for sure, modern yard signs may have been used as far back as the 1920s or earlier.

Yet in all this time there has been relatively little research done (with a few notable exceptions from pioneering grad students) on the effect yard signs have on a campaign's success.

Conventional wisdom - for many, at least - is that yard signs help build a candidate’s name recognition. They also, in theory, help a voter make a decision based on who’s lawn the yard sign is posted on (for example, if it is a conservative neighbor who has posted the sign, and the voter is conservative as well, he would likely feel comfortable voting for the candidate advertised in his neighbor’s yard).

This may be quite accurate for local races. The smaller the race, the greater the impact the sign might have. But for state and federal races, yard signs really don’t persuade many people. They’re actually very ineffective in those terms.

If you don’t believe it, ask yourself when was the last time you made a voting decision based off a yard sign. You probably never did.

And with yard signs being more expensive than canvassing, phone calls, and direct mail, it’s not likely that campaigns are going to rely on such “conventional wisdom” without doing a little cost analysis first. (e.g. How much money do we have? What can we spend it on to get the most number of votes per person?)

Ultimately yard signs - under most circumstances - just aren’t cost effective for these purposes.

Except campaigns still use yard signs.

If they can’t persuade voters, what reasons do campaigns have to use them?

There are a few different theories to answer that question.

One recent study by Costas Panagopoulos of Fordham University finds that posting street signs which remind people to vote actually pushes higher voter turnout. This is something of an extension of an earlier study (Henson, 1977) that explored the relationship between yard signs and turnout in Omaha.

If higher prevalence of yard signs means higher turnout, then certainly the GOTV relevance would be a driving factor for campaigns to consider.

Except there’s no guarantee that higher turnout means more voters supporting your campaign. The liberal who occasionally forgets to vote may be reminded by a sign for a GOP candidate, or a conservative might remember thanks to a Democrat’s sign.

Some studies - as well as our own experiences - also find that yard signs can be very important for new candidates because their prevalence demonstrates the campaign’s ability to organize - something very important for their credibility.

Political campaigns might also be encouraged to produce yard signs because they’re so well grounded in American elections. In fact, a 1997 study (Kenny and McBurnett) says that in addition to television ads and other modern forms of campaigning, candidates will produce yard signs, bumper stickers, etc. because they also “let tradition guide them”.

But it’s not tradition for the sake of tradition is it?

Probably not. The truth is the prevalence of your yard signs vs. that of your opponent’s does have a meaningful impact. That’s because activists (the volunteers and donors) are very supportive of this tradition. If your campaign has fewer signs, they’ll be more discouraged about your prospects for victory, thus they’ll be less motivated to walk neighborhoods, make calls, or give money.

Additionally, the larger the campaign, the more some activists will want your sign in his or her yard - to the point that they’re willing to cover the cost. This was seen most recently in the 2008 presidential election when neither the Obama nor McCain campaigns were quite so willing to give out a lot of yard signs for free.

In fact, the Obama campaign went so far as to charge $5 for a sign, and people got them anyway - and in huge numbers. Obama was a particularly inspiring candidate and the laws of supply and demand allowed his campaign to charge for a product that would otherwise be completely free. Simply put, he was so inspiring that there was actually a demand for his yard signs - a demand you could put a price tag on…literally.

So just because a yard sign isn’t going to directly effect a voter’s decision (especially in the technology age of the most impressive television ads, web design, and mailers ever seen) they still hold a great importance. Sure, political professionals are adapting to new methods of campaigning, but the old ones still have value.

And that’s a good thing. For the political individual, yard signs are fun to put up on the lawn, and it would be a shame to see them go away.

It just wouldn’t be autumn in an even-number-year without them.

Come back for our Tuesday post on phone banking!

1 comment:

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