The 2017 US senate special election in Alabama (Jones Vs. Moore) has an exciting story. Not only did it see a Democrat win in a ‘red’ state (Doug Jones), the campaign manager Wade Perry attributes the win, in part, to using political yard signs in his campaign.
Pic Source: Facebook, Selma Alabama for Doug Jones US Senate
The objective behind it was simple: the campaign had to normalize the support of a Democrat when the voters had not supported them in decades.
“I remember sitting with Giles and talking about neighbor-to-neighbor legitimization, and how this race was different in that signs were going to matter.”
– Wade, Campaign manager Alabama US Senate election
And well, they succeeded – with over 15,000 signs distributed, the campaign eventually put their candidate (Jones) in the Senate.
In times of sophisticated voter contact and data-centric approach in political campaigning, this story has two takeaways:
- It re-affirms the effectiveness of old school political yard signs in election campaigns
- It shows how modern electoral techniques go hand in hand with traditional methods to bring about success.
If you are looking to replicate this success and use campaign yard signs for your campaign, this post can help.
We will objectively look at the role of political yard signs in campaigns and their advantages. We will also take a clear look at the cons of using political yard signs in your campaign strategy – and discuss pragmatic solutions to overcome them.
How can political yard signs impact elections?
The impact of political yard signs in a campaign has always been hard to track. Though studies say that yard signs increase vote share by 1.7% points, campaign managers are hard-pressed to spend enormous resources behind it.
Having a clearer idea of how campaign yard signs actually bring about this impact can help with that. some ways how yard signs can help in election campaigns:
6 ways political yard signs influence elections
- Gives visibility to the candidate
- Can be used for collecting voter information for persuasion later
- Provides a tangible way to move supporters up the ladder of engagement
- Enables peer to peer communication between voters/supporters
- Is an indicator of political behavior (shows voter’s propensity to cast vote)
- Can roughly be used to predict election outcomes
- Let us explore each of these points in detail.
a) Increases vote share by 1.7 percentage points
In a scientific study conducted by five US colleges, the evidence clearly shows that those candidates who used lawn signs had a distinct advantage (1.7%) over others. This is about the same effect as direct-mail on election results.
The take-away from this number is that using lawn signs for voter persuasion is on par with other low tech campaign tactics like direct mail. The result is that it generates positive persuasion effects in small magnitude.
In simpler terms, using political lawn signs gives your candidate a 1.7 percentage point advantage over the others.
This is particularly relevant for swing states (or battleground states), where every percentage counts and can make a significant difference to the election outcome.
b) Gives visibility to candidate
In down-ballot races and local races, voters prefer to vote for candidates they know. However, these are typically low-information races where voters are not always aware if your candidate is competing. In such cases, name recognition increases candidate support.
Image source: The Chicago Tribune
Similarly, lawn signs are also dead useful in primaries – where the effect is the strongest.
“It allows people to see multiple names out there, and maybe seek out information about candidates,” – Kim Moody, Denton, Republican Precinct Chair
Unlike general elections where there are only two parties (and plenty of information available), the Primaries have multiple candidates, with a lot of them running for the first time. For these candidates, visibility and candidate awareness matters!
In such cases, political yard signs generate interest and curiosity among voters to take a closer look at who is really running for office.
c) Can be used for collecting voter information
Let us take a closer look at Doug Jones’ political campaign. The pivotal advantage that lawn signs provided in his campaign were in how they were used!
In a process that was never before used in Alabama politics, supporters were given lawn signs after collecting basic information from them (name, address, phone number, email id).
This in turn led to a treasure trove of data that was later used by the campaign to identify supporters and mobilize volunteers.
A similar strategy can work for your election campaign too. Instead of merely seeing the yard sign as a goodwill hand out, use it to collect data on your supporters. You can later use them for persuasion or GOTV campaigns.
d) Provides a tangible way to move supporters up the ladder of engagement
During the voter ID phase of election campaigns, volunteers have two mandates:
- Identify supporters
- Check if supporters would like to be more involved in the campaign
That means, once a volunteer has identified the voter as a ‘supporter’, they engage the supporter with small asks, keeping in line with the ladder of engagement.
One such ask that can be included in your phone-banking script is whether the supporter would be willing to host a yard sign!
The request is small that it does not scare away your supporter and the outcome can have a significant impact on your campaign.
e) Enables peer to peer communication between supporters
Social media and text messaging are playing a more prominent role in political election campaigns because of a critical feature: they enable one on one (peer to peer) communication between supporters.
Now lawn signs, though unconventional, have emerged as one more element that can promote a similar interaction.
Swing voters can reach out to neighbors with a specific lawn sign and have a conversation about the candidate and their stance.
More importantly, candidate-approval from a respected peer can significantly impact the voter’s decision on which candidate to support.
f) As an indicator of voter’s political behavior
It is true that an innocuous lawn sign does not always translate into a vote. However, it is undeniably an indicator of how involved (or engaged) the voter is with politics and also your campaign.
A study found that having a yard sign (among other things), increases the likelihood of the said voter casting a ballot by 2.4 times!
For your election campaign, it means that it can work as a sound GOTV strategy. If you can engage your supporters by asking them to host campaign yard signs, their chances of turning out to cast vote increases!
g) Can be used to predict election outcomes
If a candidate has a higher number of lawn signs, then it shows that he has more engagement than others. This information is a useful data-point in predicting election results.
Similarly, a study on behalf of the Society for Political Methodology found that in 47 instances (out of 64), the candidate with the greater number of signs received more votes.
This means that your election campaign can use yard signs as a non-invasive and useful data point in measuring your campaign success.
Challenges in using political yard signs for your campaign
Most election campaigns are hesitant to invest heavily in political yard signs because of 3 significant challenges.
Table no. 1 Overcoming challenges for using political yard signs in election
|S.no.||Political yard sign challenges||Solution|
|1.||Expensive||Encourage user-generated yard signs|
|2.||Resource intensive||Make it a part of voter Id and supporter engagement|
|3.||Tough to measure the impact||Correlate with campaign objective and run phone banking surveys to get results|
- It is a financially expensive endeavor: Campaign yard signs are estimated to cost around $3 per vote. While that can seem a small amount, the number can exponentially increase with the scale of the campaign.
Solution: Enable supporters to print and set up their own yard signs.
- It is a massive drain on your volunteer’s time: Using up volunteer hours canvassing for hosting yard signs takes away from important election tasks – like voter id and registration.
Solution: Combine yard sign hosting with other volunteer activities (e.g. During phone banking sessions, ensure that you ask supporters to host yard signs)
- It can be tough to track success: Campaign managers find it immensely difficult to attribute election results to hosted yard signs (and the money spent toward it).
Solution: Correlate yard signs with your campaign objective (e.g. improve social proof and currency of a candidate within a neighborhood)
The use of political yard signs has quadrupled in the past few decades. Clearly, despite these challenges, campaigns have found ways to successfully use it – which means that you can too!
Best practices for effectively using political yard signs in your campaign
There are no clear studies that say lawn signs don’t work. However, that does not mean that you can blindly invest in a political yard sign initiative and expect results.
Best practices for using political yard signs in your election campaign
- Align political yard sign initiative with campaign objectives
- Combine political yard sign ask with mainstream campaign activity like? (instead of it being separate)
- Understand why supporters put up yard signs to engage with them better
- Outsource and enable supporter yard sign hosting wherever possible
A political yard sign is demonstrative – it is used more for ‘activation’, rather than the persuasion of your voters. Understanding this fundamental characteristic can help you effectively use political yard signs for your campaign.
Based on this, there are certain best practices that can help you get more from using political yard signs in your election campaign
a) Align political yard signs initiative with campaign objectives
Instead of trying to convert every lawn sign into a vote (clearly not possible), try to tie lawn signs to a campaign objective so that you can measure the outcome.
The campaign objective could be increasing the visibility of your candidate, or reinforcing a stance of your party, or simply getting more social proof.
To measure impact, you can use a survey form during phone banks to see if the effort has indeed helped you in achieving the objective.
For instance, say your candidate is running for office in an area where he is still relatively new. The objective of your campaign would be to increase their visibility. Political yard signs in public spaces, busy neighborhoods can be used to achieve that.
During phone banks, you can ask voters from that area if they have heard about the candidate. If 30 people out of 100 reached out to reply in the affirmative (sample size depends upon the size of the campaign), then you know that your efforts have made a positive impact.
If lawn signs can tangibly help you with such concrete goals, then you stand a better chance at success.
b) Combine political yard signs with your mainstream campaign activity
Spending volunteer hours on just asking voters to host yard signs are a huge drain on your resources. Instead, combine your grassroots initiative and voter data collection efforts with a lawn sign ask.
Like the Doug Jones campaign in 2018 (for US senate), you can reach out to those supporters who have requested a lawn sign and ask them for more information (their number, email id, and whether they would be willing to volunteer).
In another effort, while talking to supporters during Voter ID phone banks you can pitch yard signs as a ‘lesser ask’.
That is, if a ‘strong supporter’ is not interested in contributing money, then you can check if they would be interested in hosting your yard sign.
Such combined efforts will ensure that your resources are optimally used. That is, volunteers can pitch for a lawn sign hosting while canvassing and collecting data on the supporter.
c) Understand why your supporters want to put up political yard signs
The motivation behind your supporters hosting your sign can help you engage them better and move them up the ladder of engagement.
For instance, say supporters are hosting signs to be demonstrative about their allegiance. Then they can be persuaded to be invested a bit more in your campaign. Maybe an ask for peer to peer engagement or relational organizing will fit.
However, if the display of lawn signs is merely a statement of who they support (and nothing else), you can nurture/engage the supporters more before making an ask.
In this context, one on one conversations via text (peer to peer messaging) to build a relationship with the supporter plays a huge role.
Say a supporter has agreed to host a yard sign. Your volunteers can reach out to them via a text asking them when they will be picking up the sign. They can also send text updates on when the campaign offices are open so that it is easier for the supporter to plan the pick-up.
Finally, after the sign has been picked up the volunteer can again reach out asking for a picture.
Establishing this relationship will be critical in moving your supporters up the ladder of engagement.
d) Outsource and enable independent lawn sign hosting
Usually, all campaigns have standard campaign yard signs that they advertise on websites. Here is an example of some signs that Warren had on her site during the 2020 presidential primaries:
While these are good for fundraising, it also means that the signs can very easily get missed amidst a lot of clutter.
If you want your lawn signs to truly stand out, then encourage your supporters to come up with their own signs.
Here is an example of a lawn sign that homeowners put up in Texas during the 2018 Midterms.
Image Source: Newsweek
This was in support of a democratic candidate in a largely Republican state. Clearly, it was a lot more impactful than hosting a standard-issue campaign yard sign.
Typically, it is user-generated content that gets more attention (on any platform). For instance, the iconic ‘HOPE’ poster for Obama’s campaign was not commissioned.
Encouraging supporters to look to their creativity will also mean that they put up election yard signs based on the issues they think will matter the most.
This in turn can help swing voters decide on a candidate (yours) to support!
In summary, successfully using a political yard sign for your election campaign depends upon what you want the strategy to achieve. If you want to translate every single lawn sign into a vote and exponentially increase that number, that would be tough to achieve.
However, if you use political lawn signs as part of your campaign strategy to improve engagement with your supporters and boost name recognition (visibility), you can definitely be successful!