It’s electioneering season, and there’s a new crop of signage popping up in Northern Kentucky yards and lining streets.
Most private businesses pick and chose what candidates can post in their window or on their lawn but, Pferrman Floors in Cold Spring has allowed all comers. Rival candidates have lined up next to each other, and, perhaps, this is what democracy looks like.
Harold Pferrman has been in business for more than 50 years, and throughout that time he’s had a policy to let anyone running for office place a sign. One of his employees said every election the display seems to get larger. Right now signs are being added weekly, and she expects a sea of signs to appear as the election gets closer.
In 2015 a study led by Columbia University’s Donald Green and other researchers found that yard signs can have a small effect. In four randomized field experiments researchers placed campaign signs on both public and private lawns. Each experiment used signs for a different candidate including a a congressional candidate, a mayor, a county commissioner and a less traditional campaign sign directed against a gubernatorial candidate.
The researchers found that, while the percentages were small, the signs did have an impact on the outcome. One of the study authors, Alex Coppock, told Politico, “We were surprised by these findings, because the conventional wisdom is that lawn signs don’t do much — they’re supposed to be a waste of money and time. Many campaign consultants think that signs ‘preach to the choir’ and not much else,” Coppock said.
“The effect is small in terms of percentage points, though the implication is that thousands of voters would have voted for someone else if not for the signs,” Coppock continued. “My guess is that part of the reason that the effect is small is because any campaign tactic — signs, ads, mailers, calls, etc — only move people around at the margin. In many ways, it would be strange if the effect were bigger. Imagine a world in which the presence or absence of lawn signs could swing an election by 10 points.”
So, how effective are signs?
It depends, said Northern Kentucky University political science professor Ryan Salzman. He has a unique perspective through his field of study but also as an incumbent candidate for the Bellevue City Council.
“Politicians hope that signs have impact because they certainly invest in them,” Salzman said. “They spend a lot of time, not only developing the signs, but raising money to purchase the signs, finding locations for the signs. Relative to a Facebook advertisement on the Internet, it’s quite labor intensive to do these. It does beg the question of how impactful are they?”
Research on the topic is scant, he said, probably because most of the research is done on major races. In large state and federal races, election signs are a drop in a very large bucket when compared with the cost and impact of television and social media advertising.
“So, if you think of the Kentucky senate race involving Rand Paul and Charles Booker,” Salzman said, “a sign here or there for Booker or Paul can’t have a significant effect relative to those other things, but for local races, I think they do still serve a strategic purpose.”
“When you are at the local level, running for school board or something like that, anything you can do to have your name be recognizable is important,” he said. “When somebody walks into a voting booth and sees that name…they might be inclined to say, ‘I recognize that name so I feel comfortable giving my vote to that person.’”
Sign location can make an impression as well because it creates a potential association, either good or bad, with the individual or business where the sign is located.
“The business that says anyone who wants to put a sign on my property can do it is pretty rare,” said Salzman. “Usually, people are quite particular about who can put something in their yard or on their property. And that can have dividends as well. When I drive around the streets of my community, I know people’s homes, and when I see a yard sign in a yard for somebody that I know it says to me not only does that person support this candidate but they support them so much they are willing to put their yard sign out there.”
As a candidate and in talking to other candidates, Salzman said, yard signs can also be a welcome tool for those running for office, serving as an ice breaker. Asking someone to put up your sign opens the door for questions and further discussion of one’s position and candidacy.
Associations, good and bad
Seeing a sign in the yard of a neighbor or local business, Salzman said, might make them think a little longer or harder about a particular candidate. Of course, there can be the opposite effect as well. A sign in the yard of someone with whom you disagree politically would make a different association. Yet, even that offers the benefit of name recognition.
Someone running as a candidate for a party has the benefit of the cues associated with that party, but for nonpartisan races, having name recognition can be even more important, he said.
“You have this bullpen of eight and you have to choose six or if you have 15 and you have to choose 12,” Salzman said. “How are you going to make that decision off the top of your head? You may know three of them but how are you going to choose the others? I think that’s where yard signs can come into play.”
With all that said, Salzman noted, yard signs can help, but they don’t always translate into votes. He noted a recent race where he saw signs all over for a candidate who actually lost significantly.
“I’m reminded of what one state rep said. In talking to them about yard signs, they said, ‘Yard signs don’t vote. People vote.’”