In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: taking a look at election lawn signs. This is The Two Minute Drill for May 13, 2016.
Enough about Donald Trump and the collective freakout that a racist, misogynist, bigot is one step closer to the White House. Let’s get to the heart of one of the most pressing issue we are forced to encounter each and every political season – namely, the scourge of election lawn signs. You know what I’m talking about. Does this scene look familiar?
Perhaps this is even your lawn. Wait . . . is it? If so, we might need to have a little chat. But first, let’s get down to brass tacks: Do election lawn signs generate votes?
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
Election yard signs have become an ubiquitous form of political participation – the use of lawn signs as a campaign tactic more than doubled between 1984 and 2008.The practice has long been regarded as a way to increase the name recognition of a given candidate. And each year, local news reports chronicle the use of this relatively inexpensive form of political advertising.
But despite their popularity, we know very little about how and why individuals display them, particularly in comparison to other forms of campaigning, such as door-to-door canvassing or telephone calls. Recently, however, researchers have sought to fill this gap in knowledge.
A study published in March 2016, titled “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 worked with four campaigns in different electoral contexts to conduct four separate experiments. Together, the experiments focused on a total of 376 voting precincts in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The study found that lawn signs may not be accomplishing that much – though perhaps enough to swing a close election. Specifically, the authors found that lawn signs:
Increase voter share by 1.7 percentage points, on average.
Are “on par with other low-tech campaign tactics such as direct mail that generate . . . effects that tend to be small in magnitude.”
In some scenarios, signs do not appear to be as effective as other campaign tactics when they make reference to a specific political party or ideology.
An important caveat here: the results from each of the four individual experiments were not, on their own, statistically significant. The authors were only able to draw general conclusions after pooling the average results of the four experiments.
What does that mean, in English? It means that the weight of the study’s “findings” should be discounted pretty significantly, and that the 1.7 percentage points could very well be meaningless. The study needs to be replicated with a larger sample size, and different variables should be tested – for example, future researchers could look more closely at how this campaign strategy might influence voter behavior in neighboring voting districts.
At least theoretically, however, the results suggest that lawn signs could provide a crucial edge in a tight election. While this effect may be small in terms of percentage points, the implication is that thousands of voters could be persuaded to support a certain candidate as a result of the signs.
I, for one, still hate them.
Word Count: 429
In case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. No words necessary – the picture above says it all. Read the Column for May 10, 2016.