Do Campaign Signs Work?

The new science of winning campaigns.
Jan. 10 2012 11:25 AM

High Stakes

Do campaign signs work?

Campaign signs for 2012 Republican presidential candidates in Bedford, New Hampshire.
Campaign signs for Rick Santorum Mitt Romney line a road in Bedford, N.H.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — If you want to take stock of the latest hostilities in the “sign wars” of which this state’s political culture is unusually proud, it might be best to start at exit 6 off Interstate 293, where campaign placards sprout from a roundabout like patriotic weeds. Then cross the Amoskeag Bridge into this city’s North End, to see evidence of candidate support neatly planted one-per-lawn by the voters of Ward 1, before heading down Elm Street past clusters of supporters hoping that their waved signs catch the eye of passing drivers and elicit the occasional supporting honk. To see the dark side of the sign wars, consult the local newspapers, whose election-season crime blotters are filled with the names of local political hands caught nicking opponents’ signs.

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

“There is no doubt that campaigns focus more on signs here than anywhere else in the country,” says Mike Dennehy, a top strategist on John McCain’s New Hampshire campaigns who has remained neutral this time.  “I think it goes hand in hand with the importance of grass-roots organizing.”

As a result, both locals and outsiders look to highway medians and frozen lawns as non-polling indicators of political behavior—like rally crowd sizes or Google search traffic—that can help prognosticate a particular candidate’s fortunes, or compare one election’s levels of engagement to another’s. “There hasn’t been the same level of grass-roots activity,” Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen told NBC’s Chuck Todd the other day. “My husband and I went in from the Seacoast, where we live, yesterday, and we saw only two signs going through Durham, Dover, and Portsmouth.”

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Outside New Hampshire, however, it has become fashionable to dismiss the lawn sign as overrated, a vestige of old-style campaigns that may raise spirits but not vote totals. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign charged supporters for lawn signs, registering the income as contributions, which helped the campaign bolster its number of small donors and to gather personal information on its supporters. Two years later, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s re-election effort decided not to print the signs at all and felt empowered to cut back on its field offices around the state after concluding that the facilities existed for little purpose but distributing the signs. (Perry has not stuck with that approach; even though he is no longer actively contesting the state, New Hampshire remains studded with signs printed upon his summertime launch.)

Are we paying too much attention to the signs? Or not enough? What can they tell us?

Under some circumstances, they can motivate people to vote. Before New York City’s 2005 mayoral election, Fordham University professor Costas Panagopoulos decided to take his curiosity about the effectiveness of signs to the streets. In the only known randomized academic experiment on the subject, Panagopoulos matched 14 pairs of Manhattan voting locations with similar turnout levels in previous elections. In each pair, he randomly designated one location as a control and the other as an experimental treatment: a small group of volunteers were dispatched to a nearby intersection, where they stood for 11 hours on election eve with white 2-foot -by-3-foot signs with “VOTE TOMORROW” written in blue. Once the polls had closed, Panagopoulos checked the numbers of votes cast in each of the 28 districts, and found that the ones visited by his sign-wavers had 37 percent turnout, nearly four points higher than those that didn’t.  Panagopoulos attributed that boost to the value of a quick reminder and speculated that seeing one’s neighbors publicly promoting the cause might instill a sense of social pressure to vote. That’s why Panagopoulos designed his experiment to measure if signs could change behavior on the boulevard, rather than just inspiring an already convivial small-town Main Street. “Detecting environmental effects in New York City, the epitome of urban anomie, would produce more convincing evidence,” Panagopoulos wrote.