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.