My very first job in Democratic politics was a fellowship with the North Carolina Democratic Party in 2004. Through that work, I learned two very important lessons about yard signs.
As someone who occasionally staffed the reception desk (and often spoke with voters), I learned how invested so many people are in their signage.
From a long-time organizer — out in the field doing the work — I learned to be skeptical of their impact. “Yard signs don’t vote,” he told me.
Today, 16 years and eight national elections later, I’m ready to side with the voters in this debate.
For starters, there’s increasingly political science which shows the value of yard signs in campaign work.
In 2015, a group of scholars (including Donald Green) tested the effectiveness of yard signs by designing an experiment to plant them in randomly selected voting precincts in four different experiments spread across New York State, Virginia, and Pennsylvania (in races ranging from county commissioner to Congress to governor). They found no effect on turnout, but across all four experiments, they did see that signage helped to boost the advertising candidates’ vote shares consistently — by 1.7 percent on average.
In another experiment, organizers working in rural Kentucky in 2019 used yard signs as a tool for voter outreach. In communities where most of the vote share is deeply conservative, finding vocal supporters for Democratic candidates is a challenge. So their experiment focused on finding voters who would be public in their support — and with the yard sign, help create a permission structure for their neighbors to do the same. In other words, a new sign in a yard was the end goal, but the outreach was driving focus. The results in this particular study were positive, but the numbers were too small to be conclusive.
But this is also 2020, and there are other reasons to rethink our old assumptions. Much of the traditional toolkit we have for engaging voters is different or off the table altogether. Voters across the country are isolated — cut off from coworkers, friends, and family. We should be building connections wherever we can — including with visible displays of support.
But the other reason I’m reevaluating one of the first things I ever learned in my chosen profession is that I’ve come to realize just how much these public declarations matter.
The Washington Post ran a story last month about the fight over yard signs in neighborhoods all over the country — how Biden sign stealing is rampant in battleground counties and a constant topic of conversation on Next Door, how people are sharing strategies on listservs and in private Facebook groups for how to deter would-be vandals.
In 2016, my wife (who also worked at Hillary for America) put a Clinton Kaine magnet on the back of our car. She drove it all over Pennsylvania when she deployed to the state for the last phase of the campaign. We drove it all over Virginia after we moved back to Washington, DC. Then, in the summer of 2017, we rented a beach house back home in North Carolina — in a county that Trump carried with 70 percent of the vote. That magnet was stolen within 36 hours of our arrival. Our little 12″ x 24″ declaration of support for Hillary Clinton was a challenge to the identity of someone — an affront.
And anything people care about that seriously is worth taking seriously.
“Yard signs don’t vote” is one of the most widely shared pieces of wisdom across campaigns up and down the ballot. But the world isn’t that simple, especially not now. So if we’re questioning that thinking — because we’ve read new political science or we’re interested in how public acts of advocacy and solidarity change how communities discuss issues (especially in 2020) — we shouldn’t stop there.
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