Expert Commentary

Do election lawn signs generate votes? New research

2016 study led by a political scientist at Columbia University that looks at whether lawn signs used in elections as a campaign tactic generate votes.

Each election season, political lawn signs dot neighborhoods nationwide. Long regarded as a way to increase the name recognition of a given candidate, the use of lawn signs as a campaign tactic more than doubled between 1984 and 2008, according to a 2013 study published in Political Behavior. Each year, many local news reports chronicle the use — and abuse — of this relatively inexpensive form of election advertising. Some communities have lengthy rules for what election signage should look like and where it can be placed. Controversy often erupts when a candidate’s signs suddenly vanish from front yards and public roadways. Occasionally, someone is arrested and charged with stealing campaign signs.

While lawn signs are widely used in modern elections, their effectiveness has not been as widely studied as other forms of campaigning, such as door-to-door canvassing, hand-held placards and telephone calls. A study published in Electoral Studies in March 2016 sought to fill a gap in knowledge. The study, “The Effect of Lawn Signs on Vote Outcomes: Results from Four Randomized Field Experiments,” provides what the authors conclude is the most comprehensive research on lawn sign effectiveness to date. The six researchers, led by Donald P. Green of Columbia University, worked with four campaigns in different electoral contexts to conduct four separate experiments. The experiments, together, focused on a total of 376 voting precincts in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The study’s findings include:

  • After pooling the results of the four experiments and examining their averages, it appears that lawn signs raise vote shares, on average, by slightly more than 1 percentage point.
  • Based on pooled results, lawn signs are “on par with other low-tech campaign tactics such as direct mail that generate … effects that tend to be small in magnitude.”
  • Signs, in some scenarios, do not appear to be as effective when they make reference to a specific political party or ideology.

The results from each of the four individual experiments were not, on their own, statistically significant. But the researchers were able to draw general conclusions after pooling the average results of the four experiments. While lawn signs appear to have a modest effect on voting outcomes, they could, theoretically, provide an edge in certain tight elections. The authors suggest that future studies use a larger sample size and look more closely at how this campaign strategy might influence voter behavior in neighboring precincts.

Related research: A 2009 study published in Electoral Studies, titled “Street Fight: The Impact of a Street Sign Campaign on Voter Turnout,” examines the relationship between street sign campaigns and voter mobilization. A 2000 study by scholars at Yale University, “The Effects of Canvassing, Telephone Calls, and Direct Mail on Voter Turnout: A Field Experiment,” analyzes nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote messages to determine which type has the greatest influence on voter turnout. A collection of research compiled by Journalist’s Resource looks at how voters are affected by negative political advertisements. A 2015 study, “In a Different Voice? Explaining the Use of Men and Women as Voice-Over Announcers in Political Advertising,” compares voice-overs used in TV ads.


Keywords: lawn signs, yard signs, campaign signs, election signs, signage, campaign tactic, placards

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