New research suggests these simple, century-old campaign tools matter — often in a good way.
They pop up like dandelions each election season, adorning neighborhoods with colorful displays of allegiance to candidates and causes.
On occasion, we hear media reports of “yard sign wars” in which thieves make off with them in the night or vandalize homes displaying them.
New University of Colorado Boulder research suggests that most of the time these centuries-old mainstays of political participation are actually good for democracy, providing ways to show solidarity with neighbors when we agree and sparking (usually) civil dialogue when we disagree.
There is something very powerful about putting a sign in your yard and saying this is who I am and this is what I believe.”
“Putting up a yard sign is not like posting a comment on Facebook or saying something to your colleague at work. It is a very unique act,” said Anand Sokhey, associate professor of political science and co-author of the book Politics on Display: Yard Signs and the Politicization of Social Spaces. “It is tying you and your identity and what you support to a specific place and putting it out there in a way that can be pretty confrontational.”
To better understand why people take this risk and how it shapes their neighborhood culture, Sokhey and co-authors Todd Makse, associate professor at Florida International University, and Scott Minkoff, assistant professor at SUNY-New Paltz, spent years cruising neighborhood streets to plot signs and interview residents. Then they overlaid their observations with geo-coded demographic and election data.
The decade-long project included 30,000 households across four elections and three research sites — two in Ohio, one in Broomfield, Colorado — to provide unprecedented insight into a seldom studied facet of American politics.
As many as one in five people display a yard sign (about as many as use Twitter).
Men, white people, high-income individuals, families without kids and churchgoers are most likely to put up yard signs, as are — not surprisingly — extroverts, ideologues and partisans.
Those who stumble upon the signs report intense emotional reactions, with one in five saying they make them anxious, one-third saying they make them proud and one-fourth saying they make them angry, the researchers found.
Contrary to the popular narrative of neighbors one-upping one another with opposing signs along property lines, most respondents said they display signs in solidarity with like-minded people, rather than in defiance of those they oppose.
Even in the most heated of elections, like in 2016, two-thirds say they would still interact with a neighbor displaying a sign for the opposite candidate. In many cases, the signs even spark productive conversations — a stark contrast to the often toxic exchanges on social media.
The million-dollar question: Do yard signs work to get candidates elected?
Probably some, Sokhey said.
“They can promote name recognition and turnout and may help a candidate get a couple of extra percentage points.”
Amidst the pandemic and people spending more time in their neighborhoods, earlier this year Sokhey suspected yard signs might be even more salient in the 2020 election cycle.
People are also using yard signs to demonstrate support for social and political movements such as Black Lives Matter and Science is Real.
“There is something very powerful about putting a sign in your yard and saying this is who I am and this is what I believe,” said Sokhey. “People remember these things about their neighbors.”
One downside: For those who don’t want to engage in politics, it’s hard to get away from a sea of signs on your street.
Rather than bristle at those you disagree with, he proposes a different way of looking at it:
“Would we really want a situation where people are just not engaged?” he asked. “At least they care.”