I saw something unusual this evening. It was a sign with the words “Clinton” and “Kaine”. Someone had put it up in their yard, apparently to show support for their presidential candidate of choice.
In past elections, I saw yard signs all over the place, but I have hardly noticed them this year. If one had a complete aversion to conversation, the internet, and all matter of news sources, but instead based all their perceptions of the world by simply walking around and looking at things they would have difficulty telling that a contentious election was occurring.
I had always liked the signs in the past, and it wasn’t until I saw this one lonely Hillary sign that I realized I sort of missed them. The signs always added a sort of festive, something or other to the whole election run up. But where were they?
Are there really fewer signs?
This is my first presidential election in Chicago, and maybe there is just no point putting up yard signs in such an overwhelmingly democratic city. In addition, the population of my neighborhood is fairly young, and many of the buildings are apartments, both of which likely decrease the amount of yard signs.
I am not the only person who has noticed a lack of yard signs this year.
There are a fair number of articles from various local news sources (Boston, Spokane, Tampa Bay, Madison) about the dearth of campaign yard signs. Of course, this doesn’t prove anything. Yard sign intensity likely varies from year to year, so in any given election the amount of yard signs will almost certainly be down somewhere. I could not find, after nearly three minutes of hard looking, any articles noting an unusual excess of yard signs.
This is an unusually contentious election. Which might cause people to try to keep their political views under the radar. Several of the articles linked above cite people worried about having their property vandalized or undergoing some other misfortune at the hands of the rival candidate’s supporters.
While this likely has had some impact, in theory a contentious election could also cause an impact in the opposite direction. If supporters are particularly passionate about their candidate, they might be more likely to festoon their yards with signs, not less.
Voters aren’t that excited about the candidates. The two candidates in this presidential race are the least liked ever. If it is love of a candidate, not hatred of the opponent, that inspires people to put up yard signs, this might explain their relative paucity.
Do they work?
The absence of yard signs may have very little to do with the candidates, the venom, or anything else specific to this election. It may have more to do with the fact that, in terms of generating votes, yard signs hardly do anything.
It is difficult to estimate the impact yard signs have, due to the endogeneity issues that are common when looking at election races. The correlation vs. causation issue of, do popular candidates have lots of yard signs, or do lots of yard signs make a candidate popular, or both. There are similar issues when looking at topics like campaign funding. To counteract this, the best approach would be to randomly assign the use of yard signs. This way, the impact of the signs could be determined independently of the factors that determine their placement.
This is exactly what Columbia University political scientist Donald Green did. He convinced four campaigns (a congressional race, a mayoral race, a county commissioner, and a campaign attacking Virginia governor Terry Mcauliffe) to randomly assign yard signs to some voter precincts and not others.
The effects were small, with an overall impact of about 1.5 percentage points. This is far from overwhelming, but it could be enough to sway a close election. It is worth noting that this comparison is between having signs and nothing, whereas the actual choice a campaign manager would have to make would be between campaign signs and some other electioneering method. A 1.5 percentage point impact places yard signs in the same range as other traditional campaigning methods such as direct mail.
Signs are likely less effective for presidential candidates. The conventional wisdom says that signs are most effective at raising name recognition. Name recognition is not something that Mr Trump nor Mrs Clinton is likely to struggle with.
There is a potential issue with effectiveness as an explanation for the decline in yard signs. Presumably, yard signs haven’t gotten significantly less effective since the 2012 election. Something else must have changed in the meantime. Campaign managers may have soured to them (possibly because of studies like the one cited above) or online advertising has become a more attractive choice in the last four years.
Signs of things to come
Yard signs may go the way of campaign buttons, but I rather hope they don’t. Political news and expression has become increasingly confined to the relative echo chambers of Facebook and other online circles. It would not be so bad to bring some of it back into public space, even just in the form of colorful signs. Like Halloween decorations, they might not change anyone’s mind, but they do give me something to look at when out on a stroll, which I appreciate.
 we could be so lucky..