Table of Contents What Is Political Canvassing? Political canvassing occurs when candidates, staff, or volunteers from a political campaign attempt to directly contact voters by going door to door. This door knocking is part of an extensive outreach plan that...
Political yard signs are a tradition and a staple of political campaigns. Every election sees a fresh crop of candidate signs spring up in roundabouts, on street corners, and sprinkled throughout private lawns and neighborhoods. But did you know a bit of controversy exists between candidates and their campaign staff about using political signs?
It’s a good-natured debate that breaks down like this: candidates love having their names on signs out in the communities they’re running to represent, while the campaign staff feels the signs aren’t a good use of resources. Still, candidates swear that campaign signs are a useful form of political advertising—after all, they increase brand awareness and emotional engagement. Staffers, on the other hand, view campaign signs as costly, ineffective, and difficult to distribute.
What does the research say? Well, it’s not exactly clear. Research on the effectiveness of political yard signs presents evidence that both sides may be partially correct.
One thing is true, however: if you’re looking to run a political campaign, knowing the ins and outs of sign science will help you better manage your budget and heighten your name recognition in public. And this guide will discuss everything you need to know about political campaign yard signs:
- Research on how political signs impact election results
- Ways to make, print, and distribute your yard signs.
- Some of the rules for political yard signs (e.g., placement, design, and timing) and where to find state-specific information about rules.
- Ways to implement yard signs as part of your political advertising strategy, without stressing out your staff.
Let’s get started!
Do Political Signs Work?
In short, the answer is yes… and no, but before we expand on that, let’s look at the exact positions for both sides of this debate:
Campaign staff tend to see the signs as wasteful, a drain on funds that takes money away from other forms of political advertising without inspiring more voter engagement. Staff are also tasked with planning for and distributing the signs (more on this later).
Political candidates see it differently. They like seeing their names in people’s yards and enjoy the emotional engagement that campaign signs generate within the community. Putting signs around town shows the community that you’re invested in them. When voters put out your signs, they’re saying they’re invested in you. It’s heady stuff.
And the emotional engagement has a real effect. Voters can have a strong emotional reaction to the political signs in their neighborhoods, as evidenced by the well-documented vandalism around yard signs leading up to the 2020 presidential elections. Local news stations across the U.S. reported ongoing problems with yard signs being damaged or stolen in the weeks and months leading up to the general election.
*Disclaimer: The opinions in this photo are those of the photographer and don’t reflect Numero’s opinions.*
While political sign-related crime was widely reported in 2020, it’s certainly not a new phenomenon, nor is it the only way voters react. Voters have a well-documented and easy-to-observe range of emotional reactions when seeing those signs: anger, pride, hope, fear, anxiety, empowerment, and so on. Those emotions can blanket the entire neighborhood and aren’t limited to divisive impacts.
Research indicates that discussions among neighbors, peers, and networks occur more frequently than yard sign crime. Signs tend to pop up in groups, with supporters signaling their solidarity in pockets, spurring conversations among different groups within the community. It creates a morale boost of sorts.
The Impact of Yard Signs on Turnout
The morale boost and community engagement don’t actually seem to translate to significant increases in voter turnout.
Rather, research shows that the signs have little to no impact on voter turnout, though they do minimally impact how many votes a candidate receives. One study showed that areas with a lot of signs depicting a candidate’s name resulted in 1.7% more votes for the candidate.
There was also a lower effect from signs in supporter’s yards than from signs in public places. This finding might comfort campaign managers a bit because coordinating sign distribution for public spaces is cheaper and less of a hassle than sending signs to individual supporters.
However, a study from Fordham University found that signs in public areas that said “vote tomorrow” were more effective in increasing turnout than yard signs.
It seems that signs might be better at reminding voters to vote than at persuading or inspiring non-active voters to turn out on election day.
One exception for these results seems to be local elections.
Political yard signs are especially helpful when running for local office because they raise awareness about local elections, which can be sporadically scheduled and dislocated from state or federal elections cycles. It’s super easy for even diligent voters to overlook an election when only local offices are in the running, so yard signs have the double duty of informing voters of both the election itself and the candidate who’s running.
While signs helped local or new politicians increase their brand awareness, it remains unclear whether such awareness sticks in the memories of voters until election day.
And in elections for state or federal offices, yard signs serve a different dual purpose. Depending on the voter, the signs could be used to either increase voter awareness or communicate an identity within communities.
As you can see, there isn’t a clear answer on whether political yard signs actually influence election results. Regardless of where you fall on the topic, campaign signs aren’t going anywhere in the near future.
So when you’re a candidate who wants to see their name around town, how do you maintain harmony with the staff who have to make it happen with precious time and money?
Easing the Campaign Staff’s Burden
Critics of yard signs assert that they are costly and require far too much effort to distribute. The return of maybe 1.7% more votes isn’t necessarily worth the expenditure. Accordingly, some compare political yard signs to leaching a patient, while others call them a necessary evil.
There are ways to balance both the concerns of the campaign staff with your motivations as a candidate. Here are a few ways to offset costs and distribution efforts:
- Add your political signs to your online merch store. This move streamlines the distribution process and can turn your campaign signs into a fundraising source. Using this approach also lets you gather names and addresses for future fundraising, canvassing, and GOTV efforts.
- Add a simple URL to the sign that directs people to your political campaign website. A good website will have both a donate button and a volunteer sign-up option readily available.
- Organize sign distribution among donors or volunteers and then organize fundraising events that can attract new donors based on the emotional engagement generated by the signs. You can do this by targeting those neighborhoods with information and/or invitations for upcoming events.
- For example, host a pancake breakfast, and send invites to people in the neighborhoods where signs from your campaign (or where clusters of signs from other campaigns within your party) can be found.
How to Get Your Political Campaign Signs
Before worrying about helping your staff distribute campaign signs, you’ll first need to develop a plan for getting them. Let’s review that process.
Planning for Your Yard Signs
You shouldn’t place an order until you have a rough idea of how many political yard signs you’ll need. Doing the research necessary to build a fair estimate will help you better manage costs. It’s also cheaper to order in bulk, but only if you don’t have to keep ordering. Worse yet, it does no good to get a bulk price discount when you’re ordering far more signs than you need for your campaign.
So how do you find the right balance? Here are a few steps to help you get organized and understand the volume of political signs you’ll need:
- Make a list of public areas that allow political yard signs to be displayed
- Make a list of residential areas likely to display your political yard signs
- Poll supporters and donors to see who’s specifically interested in obtaining a political sign from your campaign
- Use these lists to estimate the number of signs to order
Important: this part of the process makes campaign staff roll their eyes. It’s a lot of research to devote to a form of political advertising that doesn’t yield high results for voter turnout. So don’t overcomplicate things or spend too much time on the process!
Once you’ve got a decent idea of the volume of campaign signs you’ll need, it’s time to start designing the actual sign.
Designing Your Yard Signs
There are many tools that can help you design your own signs, especially if you’re a first-time candidate or running for a local office. If you have the available budget (or if design is too far outside your wheelhouse), then have a political consultant work out the design for you.
Your yard sign design should be consistent with your campaign’s branding. When designing political yard signs, you’ll follow the same general design trends used in your political campaign logo.
Plus, most printing sites offer customizable templates. So let’s discuss options for printing your yard signs. A lot of the available tools will be baked right into the websites that do the printing.
Printing Your Yard Signs
Once you’ve got a design, it’s time to start looking for a place that will print your campaign signs. Quite a few online printers are out there, but always make sure the vendor you’re going with is a union print shop. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) put together a directory of union printers to make that process easy.
To find the right printer, first reach out to your local Democratic party organization to see whether they have any resources or recommendations. To illustrate, here’s a link to a great example of the resources that might be available for San Diego area campaigns.
After your campaign signs are printed, it’s time to get them out into voters’ yards. How can you do that without overburdening your campaign staff?
How to Distribute Political Yard Signs
There are a few tactics you can use to streamline the distribution process:
- Task a supporter who refuses to phonebank or canvass with heading up your yard sign distribution. This way, you aren’t taking any capacity away from crucial voter contact efforts, and the supporter will feel empowered by being able to add value to the campaign.
- Draw upon the research from earlier and have a distribution plan in place for volunteers once the signs arrive.
- Focus on placing signs in public places, especially if your budget or volunteer bank is small.
- Offer signs to volunteers as thanks for their work with the campaign to encourage increased voter contact, increase volunteer capacity, and increase emotional investment in the campaign.
- Ensure access to the signs on your website, as noted previously, so that the signs can be effectively shipped to supporters from a central location.
Before you start putting your political campaign signs around town, however, make sure you know the rules in your state and local areas regarding where, when, and for how long your signs can be placed.
Let’s look at some of the rules you might encounter.
Political Yard Sign Rules
There are a variety of rules that could apply to your political yard signs. For example, some states have campaign finance laws that require you to include a statement directly on signs disclosing who paid for them.
There might also be restrictions on what designs you can use in your campaign signs. Here are some design restrictions that could apply to your campaign:
- No designs that include blinking lights or traffic directions, or that look like traffic signs/lights.
- No signs near polling stations or in some public rights-of-way (e.g., telephone poles, medians, or shoulders).
- No tattered or faded signs.
There can also be time limits for when you can put signs out and for how long the signs can be left out.
Ultimately, the laws around sign designs, placement, and disclosures will vary from state to state, but you can use this interactive map to find what laws apply in your state.
There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to the debate on the effectiveness of political signs, but campaign signs are seemingly here to stay. And for very good reason.
Political yard signs offer local campaigns a cost-effective way to alert their communities to both the election and the candidates. State and federal campaigns will benefit less from this effect, but could instead offset the costs by using the signs as a fundraising method.
So what’s the best way to use your campaign signs? Use them as a strategic part of your overall political advertising campaign. Let the yard signs play to their strengths based on the scope and needs of your campaign. And who knows, you might even get your campaign staff to change their mind about signs in the process. Anything’s possible, right?
- Sign Cluster – “Political Yard Signs along Minnehaha Parkway” by edkohler is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Sign Stolen – “Politics” by NatalieMaynor is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Community Engagement: “Ken Mann and many other supportive politicians make appearances” by theslowlane is licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Row of Signs – “Political signs 2015 02” by Tim Evanson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0