With election season in full swing, seemingly every neighborhood and busy intersection is sprouting dozens of multi-colored signs promoting candidates for positions ranging from the registrar of wills to the US Senate.
Often these signs proclaim a candidate’s name, but not much else. Have you ever wondered how effective they can be as a campaign tool, especially in the age of radio, television and social media? Are they even a smart place? put campaign resources, particularly into local races, where funds are scarce?
It turns out that political scientists have tried to answer these questions.
2015 to study led by Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, found that political signs can, in fact, make a difference, “by 1 to 2 percentage points on average,” says Green. “Hardly shocking, but nothing either.” In races that are especially close, they could be the deciding factor.
The “Ben Griffin” Experiment
What’s primarily at stake when it comes to signs is name recognition, especially for many local races that don’t get much attention, according to Cindy Kam, a Vanderbilt University professor who runs the Research Laboratory on Individuals, Politics and Society.
Came co-author of a study in 2011, in which yard signs for a fictional county council candidate, “Ben Griffin”, were placed on the lawn of a busy street near a school. A few days later, the school’s PTA mailed out a survey asking respondents to list their options for county council at-large positions. Five real candidates were included along with the fictional Ben Griffin and one other made-up name.
Incredibly, nearly a quarter of those surveyed included the fictional Ben Griffin among their top three choices.
Kimberly P. Mitchell/USA Today Network/Reuters
Kam concludes that in races where little information is available, “having some sense of name recognition, having seen one name, having seen multiple signs that convey a sense of viability [and] eligibility can be helpful.”
But Matt Compton, a senior vice president at Blue State, which helps support progressive causes and campaigns, says his experience is that political signage can also make a significant difference in high-profile careers.
Case in point: The 2008 presidential primaries, when both Republicans and Democrats had roughly 10 candidates each vying for their party’s nomination.
“[It] it was pretty crowded,” says Compton, who previously worked in the White House Office of Digital Strategy under then-President Barack Obama. “So just finding a way to stand out and be recognizable in a market as crowded as that is using the campaign time and dollars.
The simpler the message, the better
Keeping things simple seems to be key to increasing name recognition, and there’s evidence that a messy message can do more harm than good.
Brandon Lenoir, who studies political communication and campaigning at High Point University and worked with Green on the 2015 study, says they found that signs without partisan signs conveyed the message better than those that identified a candidate’s party affiliation.
“It seems that just putting out your name and why you’re running is more effective than trying to make a case for being progressive, conservative, Republican or Democrat,” he says.
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More broadly, that simplicity is something Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant, says he tries to impress with clients.
“The mistake people make is wanting to fill it with too much information. I remind them that people drive by these signs, not walk by the signs,” says Nicholas.
However, party affiliation can be conveyed in more subtle ways, says Kenneth Worles Jr., president of Three(i) Creative Communications, which works with Democratic and progressive candidates.
Voters, he says, have begun to internalize the party’s blue and red colors that have become popular identifiers in recent years. “If a Republican is running in a Democratic city, I guarantee that Republican will have a little more blue” on his poster, she says.
Signs can also motivate volunteers.
Nicholas says the campaign signs serve another important purpose: to help motivate staff and volunteers.
He recalls a campaign he worked on in the 1980s to re-elect a Republican candidate for Congress in Indiana. Loyal campaign volunteers complained that in previous elections, the candidate “didn’t even have a yard sign,” he says.
“People see these signs as an integral part of what a campaign should do,” says Nicholas. “Without them, things feel a bit bare.”
How vital, then, are signs to political campaigns? Vanderbilt’s Kam thinks they could be more important than ever, given the current media landscape. Local news, he argues, “is almost a dying breed” and political coverage has become “massively nationalized.”
“I would say that in some of these races, we don’t have tons of information,” she says. If candidates want to get name recognition, “political signs that people see in their everyday lives” might be the best way to do it.