What We Learned from Studying Yard Signs
by Todd Makse, Scott Minkoff, and Anand Edward Sokhey
As an election approaches, it often feels like political yard signs are suddenly everywhere. According to the American National Election Studies, roughly one American in ten typically displays a yard sign for a presidential candidate. Meanwhile, recent stories suggest a degree of merging between offline and online worlds: players in Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing” can now adorn the yard of their island with one of four available Biden-Harris yard signs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are spending more time than ever in our residential spaces, and the signs we choose to display take on new meaning. For political scientists, the central questions that have always emerged in the fall (especially during national election years) are “Why are people doing this?,” and “What do these signs do to our neighborhoods?”
In our book, Politics on Display: Yard Signs and the Politicization of Social Spaces, we studied these and other questions, leveraging a variety of data sources, designs, and statistical techniques to examine a participatory act that is familiar and ever-present, but that turns out to be anything but simple. Over the course of two presidential elections, we studied a section of Broomfield, Colorado and multiple sections of Columbus, Ohio (including an entire city, Upper Arlington) in detail – mapping the display of yards signs and surveying and interviewing residents. We also asked questions about sign displaying in national surveys and spoke with campaign managers. We looked for evidence of “sign wars” – i.e., retaliatory patterns of sign displaying on blocks or in small neighborhoods – and documented how these displays affected residential spaces. We came to the following conclusions:
1. Signs are definitely about communication.
Sign-displaying is less habitual than other types of participatory political activities, which makes sense if you think about how the act is inextricably linked to the contexts in which we live. But why do people put up signs? We find evidence that a mix of motives inspire sign displaying, but “letting other people know where we stand” is a big part of the story. Some of the other things that predict whether a person will put up a sign include their ideological extremity, their religiosity, their personality (extraversion), and their propensity to initiate political conversations.
2. People who put up signs tend to see their neighborhood differently from those who do not.
People who display signs are distinct from non-displayers – they see the act of displaying a sign in a much more positive light than non-displayers. Even though we often hear complaints that sign displays are an eyesore, a majority of people don’t feel that way. And, while signs evoke emotion among all those living in a neighborhood, people who display signs tend to have stronger emotional reactions to signs.
3. We need to re-think old narratives about canvassing and mobilization.
A lot of campaign managers argue forcefully that signs do not help candidates. However, some studies, including ours, suggest that they provide some limited help with name recognition, turnout, and margins. We found that the presence of yard signs for down-ballot candidates increases voting in down-ballot elections – an indicator that they can play an informational role in elections where the political environment is not already saturated.
Clustering of signs in neighborhoods tend to be for the same candidate rather than mixes of signs for opposing candidates –- a display of solidarity rather than disagreement
Accompanying this conventional wisdom that signs play a limited role in candidate success is a picture of signs as being driven by top-down dynamics, with campaign volunteers approaching individuals who live on busy streets and asking them to place a sign in their yard. While there is certainly an element of this going on, we find an equal amount of evidence – across different types of races – that signs are just as much a bottom-up story driven by individual initiative. Individuals in our surveys of sign displayers reported seeking out their signs, often paying money for them. In short, signs are important to people who display them, and individuals are not merely passive recipients of signs; signs are an important part of the way individuals engage with campaigns and elections.
4. There is little widespread support for “sign wars.”
We took a bird’s eye view to the question of “sign wars” -- the idea that people post signs to retaliate against neighbors' signs -- using geospatial analysis to examine the distribution of signs in our study areas. We find systematic evidence of clustering, but that clustering of signs on properties in neighborhoods tends to be among signs for the same candidate rather than mixes of signs for opposing candidates –- a display of solidarity rather than disagreement. The map below shows the display of Obama and McCain signs in the city of Upper Arlington, Ohio during the 2008 election. It is difficult to see this clustering with the naked eye but statistical tests were quite definitive: Obama signs were more likely to be near other Obama signs and McCain signs were more likely to be near other McCain signs (even after controlling for partisan distribution in neighborhoods). This was a consistent pattern across races and years.
5. The signs closest to us exert the strongest effects on our thoughts and behaviors.
Since one of our central questions was how people experience their neighborhoods, we thought carefully about how to measure neighborhoods. Rather than making assumptions about “how far” sign effects should travel – that is, whether sign displays on the other side of our neighborhood affect us as much as what is much closer to house – we treated this as an empirical question and created multiple measures of distance and space. We find that the distribution of signs in the more intimate context (the 10 nearest properties to us) have the most consistent effects, with more signs shaping our perceptions of the politics of the broader neighborhood and stimulating conversation in our neighborhood social networks. Indeed, yard signs even seem to contribute to the development of what we might call the emotional geographies of neighborhoods. Consider this map of Broomfield, Colorado which shows where people are anxious about the presence of yard signs during the 2012 presidential election. This anxiety is, in part, a function of the partisan balance of signs in neighboring yards: when neighboring signs support the opposing candidate, people are more likely to feel anxious.
6. We need to keep studying why and how politics gets put on display.
People often ask us to comment on “whether signs influence votes.” We appreciate this question, but note that signs are not pamphlets, mailings, robocalls, or even brief conversations with a stranger volunteering for a campaign. After more than a decade of studying yard signs, we encourage scholars and journalists to ask the next question, the question after that, and so on: Do signs influence your emotions? Do signs influence relationships with your neighbors? Do signs influence the way you see the place you live? Do signs leave lasting impressions after the election is over?
We focused on these issues, and our answer to these questions is yes. However, we also acknowledge that polarization and negative partisanship have gotten (even) worse in the eight years since our last foray into the field. Better understanding the formation, maintenance, and consequences of partisan identities will be an important part of attempts to reset democratic norms and rebuild public trust in institutions of governance; studying why people choose to put their politics on display may help unlock important insights.
Todd Makse is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University.
Scott L. Minkoff is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at SUNY-New Paltz.
Anand Edward Sokhey is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the Director of the Leroy Keller Center for the Study of the 1st Amendment.