Signing up for another campaign year

A collage of campaign signs

Photo: Mark Kurtz

Find Mark Kurtz’ photo essay on campaign lawn signs on our main news page here.

Campaign lawn signs: blight on the landscape or patriotic example of freedom of speech?…an aesthetic abomination or democracy in action? Along with the autumn colors, these signs appear every fall. Maybe I’m spending more time on the road this fall and so am noticing them more, but they seem to be especially prolific this campaign season, at least in the area where I live

It happens that I live in an area that has particularly attractive roadsides, even in town. When I drive an Adirondack highway, a campaign lawn sign along the side of the road sticks out like a sore thumb, and I mean a very sore thumb – it gets noticed but it really doesn’t seem like it fits.

But if am making my way along a suburban highway that is overly developed with big box stores, chain restaurants and car dealers, I may not much care about whether there is a campaign sign along the side of the road. It almost blends in with the rest of the roadside clutter.

Picture this difference: a drive on Route 3 between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, nearly 20 miles of wilderness, compared to the drive along Route 3 on the outskirts of the city of Plattsburgh, past malls and plazas, advertising signage, traffic lights and an interstate overpass. Is a lawn sign going to make a difference in the appearance on that roadside, or, more importantly for the candidate, is it even going to get noticed?

I’ve always thought these signs rather unattractive and I’ve often wondered if they were effective, but apparently not many others have wondered as there is very little research on the effectiveness of campaign lawn signs. One would have thought that, with all the focus groups and polling that takes place, some research into the use of the simple lawn sign would have been covered.

Everyone pretty much agrees that it is name recognition that is one of the primary reasons for their use (like Obama and Romney need that at this point) but not much beyond that is widely known. However, there are two scholars, Todd Maske and Anand E. Sokhey, that did some homework in 2008 and came up with this paper: “Not in My Front Yard! The Displaying of Yard Signs as a Form of Political Participation“.

OK, this thing reads like a research paper (I did more skimming than reading) but what I did gather from their paper didn’t surprise me. In their introduction they say that although “campaigns fill airwaves and everyday life with heated rhetoric and emotion, voting itself is a solitary act with no witnesses and no way to register intensity of feeling. But while the fundamental, most common participatory act of democracy lacks these characteristics, the front lawns of America bear witness to the fact that citizens are not afraid to participate in a manner that is public, communicative and confrontational.”

So: “Hey, you Obama supporter, here’s my Romney sign!…take that!”, and vice versa.

Does the number of signs supporting a certain candidate mean anything? If it has any correlation to outcome, then Doheny is going to win by a landslide – he has papered the countryside with the most signs I have ever seen. But that brings up another question, where do these signs come from, official candidate campaigns or individuals wishing to express their own support?

It looks like both – in an opening statement of the Maske/Sokhey paper the authors say their findings “suggest that the dissemination of yard signs is not merely a top-down process driven by campaign professionals, but a genuine participatory act that is fueled by individual initiative and social networking.”

Except for a few individuals that want to continue making a statement, the signs do seem to disappear fairly quickly from the roadside after the election, either by those that do the responsible thing and take down their candidate’s signs or those in frustration and so sick of them they just want to get them off the road. They get collected like the autumn leaves from our yards…except most of them end up in the landfill, except maybe for a few that are kept as souvenirs (watch for them on eBay in 20 years).

Now, what about those political bumper stickers?

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10 Comments on “Signing up for another campaign year”

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  1. tootightmike says:

    I’ve been back and forth across St Lawrence County during the hunting season, and everywhere I’ve seen signs for Mr Doheny….. Not in peoples front yards, but in random locations, having nothing to do with the property owners or their opinions.
    This is the work of some low ranking lackey/zealot, who believes that if we see the name often enough we’ll come to love it. It’s a low trick, and an insult to the voters.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’ve been from Lake Placid to Glens Falls to Old Forge to Tupper Lake, and beyond ( Buzz Lightyear ) and the Doheny signs are everywhere, and in quantity. Does anyone know how many they bought?

  3. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    I saw a guy in a somewhat beat up Dodge Caravan on Route 12 just south of Lowville, NY placing Doheny signs into the ground at about 50 yard intervals late last week. Perhaps he’s the culprit? I wonder if he’ll be coming around to pick them up after Nov. 6th?

  4. PNElba says:

    If billionaires and corporations can secretly donate millions of dollars to campaigns in the name of free speech, surely the road signs are also a form of free speech.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    If anyone votes on the basis of roadside signs, what does that say about their level of intelligence?

  6. Newt says:

    I heard from someone in the Owens campaign that they deliberately did not attempt to match Doheny’s lawn sign output, since they do not feel they are that effective. They were more concerned about countering the zillions of dollars in negative ads from Doheny and his right-wing billionaire super-pack supporters. As apparently, they should be.

    That is why there is no Owens sign in my front yard to keep the other three signs company.

    I read somewhere of a controlled study in Massachusetts that found they had no significant impact. I don’t believe it. As in a lot of things, if # of signs is evenly matched, they cancel each other out. But if one side has a huge number, and the other few or none, it has an impact on some uncommitted (& “low-information”) voters. Kind of like the “momentum” thing that the Romney people are trying to perpetrate. Some voters are, perhaps unconsciously swayed to follow winners.
    Lots of signs = “He’s a winner, and I want to run with him.” IMHO.

  7. Paul says:

    I have never seen that Obama 2012 sign? I have seen many Obama Biden 2012 but not this one?

  8. Paul says:

    We had lots of Bush Must Go signs around my neighborhood about 8 years ago. Where are all the get rid of the other guy type of signs?

  9. Peter Hahn says:

    They are unattractive, but all the candidates seem to feel they are effective. If they have the money, they buy them and put them up all over. There are lots and lots for the judges too.

  10. Newt says:

    You don’t see many Obama signs because the Obama campaign has provided $0 for his campaign in New York State. Even local supporters know that supporting the Obama campaign in New York is a bit like pouring water cups of water into Lake Erie to raise the level.

    But people kept coming into the Voters For Change storefront in Saranac Lake asking for Obama signs, and finally we got some old Obama placards, plastic sheeting, 1 x 2 stakes, and staples, and made a couple of dozen Obama yard signs. You might see them around the Tri Lakes. But look fast, they tend to get stolen.

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