Project Wonderful

Monday, August 6, 2012

Ask An Election Nerd: What's the Deal with Yard Signs?

From the Tumblr: Why does everyone always make fun of yard signs on campaigns? What's with the negative connotation? I just started interning on a campaign this summer & can't build up the guts to ask, since it seems like such a dumb question.

From my e-mail: So signs don't vote. Research, trial and error, and general wisdom all seem to confirm that. So why do we still use them? In the campaign that I'm interning on, signs take up a small but significant amount of time, and a lot of my lowly intern work revolves around them. If signs don't vote, then why aren't campaigns putting the time and energy that signs take into canvassing or phone banking? And not to get into campaign finance too much, but at what point are signs more worth spending money on than lit, advertising or other things?

Obviously we have some confusion here. First off, yardsigns don't vote and they aren't proven to increase voter turnout. Yard signs would be a benign annoyance if they didn't take time, money and other resources away from campaign activities that do have an impact. Yardsigns can take a chunk out of a campaign budget that could otherwise be spent on direct mail, media, or voter contact. They take time away from field staff whose goals don't (or at least shouldn't) include yard sign distribution. Even more frustrating is the myth that yard signs influence the outcome of a campaign. Every organizer has rolled her eyes at the potential volunteer who claims they "don't have time to come in, but I have a yard sign" as if that excuses or mitigates a lack of participation. Every campaign manager has wasted precious hours on the phone with candidate's spouse, mother, or sometimes the candidate himself being harangued for a lack of yard signs when she should be spending that time talking to voters or raising money. To most modern campaign staff, yard signs are an outdated tool and activists insisting on their use to win a campaign is the equivalent of a patient's family insisting to a doctor that their family member be cured with leaches.

So why do we use them? If you know campaigns, planting yard signs is like wearing your favorite football team's jersey. It's fun to show your support, but no one really thinks it's going to influence the outcome of the game...unless you're crazy. Sometimes yard signs are there to placate people. We've all heard anecdotes about planting yard signs on the route from the candidate's house to his office, just so the staff doesn't have to hear complaints from his family anymore.

To me, yard signs are still so prominent in campaigns for what I call bagel and cream cheese reasons. I live in New York and if you come here and order a bagel and cream cheese you get one bagel with about a 1/2 a pound of schmear. Nobody wants that much cream cheese; it's disgusting. Yet every bagel place does it because it's how it's always been done. Even though most people wipe off some of the cream cheese, if a local bagel store stopped overstuffing its sandwiches, I can guarantee you people would complain and feel as if they were being cheated. Because one store does it, everyone has to do it. Same thing with yard signs. If we all stopped providing yard signs to our supporters, some people would make their own but most people wouldn't care. However, because the competition is doing it, we have to do it too. Although yard signs neither vote nor win elections it can be demoralizing for volunteers and activists if your entire town is covered in signs for your opponent. Yard signs and chum can work the other way and give your local activists a sense of cohesion and pride.

At least for the next few cycles, yard signs are here to stay, so how can we make the most of them? In the past, Republican campaigns and OFA notably have charged for signs and counted the money as contributions. On smaller campaigns, I have used yard signs as a volunteer perk (do a shift, get a sign). I like to think of yard signs as payment for the local community, as symbol of pride in an effort they've contributed to. But yeah, they are really freaking annoying, and that's why.

Hope I answered both your questions!!!

Campaign Love,


  1. Yard signs aren't 100% worthless. They can be helpful in a low-turnout, low-information races that often come down to who's more familiar.

    And for field staff, the over-inflated reputation they have can be helpful if you have a volunteer with way more enthusiasm than skill. That's your yard sign captain (because Titles Are Free).

  2. I think so much of it is because it is the wrong metric for a campaign to be measuring success. What really matters is supporters identified, not yard signs placed, but back before voter files used at the level they were used today, somehow this was a key metric for campaigns.

  3. Great point, Jessica. One strategy to get out of yardsigns I like to use is "Yardsigns are great, but unfortunately they're also really bad for the environment. Plastic bags, heavy cardboard and low-grade metal end up in our landfills all too often. I've chosen to forego yardsigns on my campaign and challenge my opponents to do the same."

  4. Here's what I like about your post: yard signs are a symbol of recognition in the community. Yard signs can increase solidarity and motivation in vols. In my community, we have a newly drawn Congressional district. Our wonderful red-to-blue candidate is completely unknown in our part of town, she reps a sliver of the new district in our State House. We need name recognition, we need visibility. We need vols and voters to think like a herd--hey, my neighbor knows that candidate, maybe it's ok for me to like her too.

  5. Agree with all your points on candidate campaigns. The one time I've ever found yard signs to be useful was in a state constitutional amendment campaign in which rhetorically and with any common sense, the don't take away the rights of all women vote would have logically been 'no' but the opposition got the ballot language twisted in such a way that the good folks side needed to vote 'yes.' So, we invested a lot more time and energy in yard signs with clear pro-choice, pro-family language and a big 'yes' with a check next to it than we otherwise would have. Of course, this was by no means the only or even anywhere near the biggest voter persuasion expenditure. That said, except in very rare cases, yard signs are the suck.