It’s political yard sign season and Democrats are falling behind Republicans in the number, size and visibility of their candidates’ signage. Some Democrats are getting very frustrated, especially Democratic County Chairs who missed opportunities for placement of candidate signs at parades and county fairs in June and July.
Reynolds’ signs are popping up like mushrooms all over the state, and the lack of a significant number of Hubbell signs have some Democrats worried. It’s early, so Republicans may just have a head start. Democrats still have time to respond in mass.
Volunteers, supporters and some Democratic party officials love yard signs, but the majority of Democratic strategists don’t see yard signs as critical to electing candidates. Many campaigns prefer to spend limited resources on other indirect political activities such as TV or radio advertising, direct mail and parades. They contend that yard signs take valuable resources to fund and distribute them. Most campaigns are laser focused on direct voter contact through phone banking and canvassing and see yard signs as a costly distraction.
However, research indicates yard signs can serve important roles by increasing vote margins, improving candidate name recognition and inspiring volunteers. The Obama campaign shunned yard signs, claiming that in a presidential election Obama’s name was well known and signs weren’t necessary in building name recognition. They often answered requests for yard signs with the refrain, “yard signs don’t vote.”
But recent evidence indicates yard signs can be helpful for candidates with little name recognition. Wichita State political scientist Melvin Kahn suggests yard signs can build name recognition.
“They don’t actually produce voting a certain way. What they do is enable the first element to be reached, of getting candidates known. And they particularly work if they’re strategically placed, so that there are many that are together, so you get a bam, bam approach,” said Kahn.
In 2015, Donald Green, a Columbia University professor, conducted four field tests on the effectiveness of yard signs. His conclusions suggested yard signs could increase candidate vote margins by 1.7%. That suggests yard signs don’t contribute significantly to big wins, but they offer nearly the same boost as direct mail.
Another yard sign researcher is Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Fordham University.
“I designed a randomized field experiment that randomly assigned to different voting locations in Manhattan during the 2005 mayoral election.” Panagopoulos concluded that, “At the margins, mobilizing voters can be very important. And particularly in close, competitive races, they (yard signs) can make a difference in determining the outcome of an election.”
Democratic social media posts and intra-party conversations indicate many Iowa Democrats are growing frustrated with the lack of Democratic candidates’ signs in Iowa. A recent Facebook post about her husband’s ride across Iowa on RAGBRAI points to this concern.
“My husband rode 497 miles last week across Iowa. (RAGBRAI.) 497 miles…. He paid particular attention to yard signs. There were signs all over the place for Reynolds. All over, and quite a few for Trump. He did not see one supporting our nominee for governor and does not recall seeing any for congressional candidates.”
Sean Bagniewski, Democratic Polk County Chair, felt that the value of yard signs was certainly worth discussing. He recently sponsored a discussion on the value of yard signs in one of the local Iowa House races in Polk County. Urbandale Representative John Forbes’ aggressive yard sign approach was discussed. Forbes’ team puts up several hundred lawn signs in one afternoon prior to the November election. The sudden shock and awe appearance of so many Forbes’ signs across Urbandale seems to work for his campaign.
A couple other factors candidates should consider is the yard sign effect on supporters rather than voters. Obviously, a campaign’s goal is to use yard signs to persuade voters to choose them over their opponent. However, supporters need to be inspired and motivated to volunteer. If they want a yard sign to proudly stick in front of their home, denying them that opportunity may diminish their enthusiasm.
Likewise, if supporters only see opponents’ yard signs it can depress their enthusiasm. In an October 2014 trip from Des Moines to Dubuque, it was utterly depressing seeing the abundance of Branstad and Ernst signs, yet not a single Hatch or Braley sign was visible until reaching Dubuque.
Here’s a good news ending to the yard sign shortage. The Hubbell campaign immediately answered my inquiry about their future sign availability for this story.
“The Hubbell-Hart campaign has distributed thousands of signs across the state,” said Emilie Simons, Press Secretary for the Hubbell Campaign. “Due to high demand, we ordered an additional shipment of yard and barn signs which will arrive this week. The enthusiasm from supporters across Iowa has been incredible, and we hope to make signs available to everyone who requests one.”
by Rick Smith