A campaign has three resources: time, money, and people. While campaigns can always, theoretically, raise more money or find more volunteers, they can't push back Election Day. Time is the only nonrenewable resource, so making the right timing decisions is critical.
With that in mind, what’s the right time to deploy traditional campaign signs? Even in a new media world, it’s a detail campaigns shouldn’t be glossing over.
Targeted and high-profile races: In a 2008 interview, Wichita State University political scientist Mel Kahn said, "candidates are aware, or should be aware, that people don't vote for persons whose name they do not know. And so it’s (yard signs) a way, at the grassroots level, of establishing name recognition." Kahn's research found that signs are one of the tactics that campaigns can employ to increase candidate name recognition.
High profile races with lots of campaign cash can forego campaign signs altogether in favor of other tactics that increase candidate name ID like earned media, television, radio, and online outreach. But the campaigns that choose to incorporate signs as part of their marketing mix should get signs out quickly.
Establishing candidate name ID is one of the first steps a campaign takes to ultimately identify voters, persuade the undecideds, and get supporters out to vote. Getting signs in supporters' lawns should happen early on in the campaign.
Down-ballot races with low voter information: In small races where a candidate isn't campaigning much at all, the other candidate should frontend sign distribution along with the field campaign as much as possible. If there isn’t the budget for that, putting signs out just a few days or weeks before the election will have an impact. This is in line with a recent study out of Vanderbilt University.
Last year, political scientists, Cindy Kam and Elizabeth Zechmeister found that not only did yard signs increase candidate name recognition but also that nearly one-in-four people who drove by the sign over just a few days time preferred that candidate. In the experiment, the researchers made yard signs for a fictitious candidate, "Ben Griffin" for a real Nashville at-large council seat election. The signs were placed two months out from the election just as campaigns were beginning to connect with voters. Three days after the signs were posted, a local school parent-teacher organization sent out an email asking recipients to take an online survey.
The survey asked respondents who they supported for the at-large Nashville council seat listing five actual candidates and two fictitious ones, including Ben Griffin. Respondents listed their top three choices for the post and nearly 25 percent of those who had driven by the Ben Griffin sign put him in their top three, which was 10-percent higher than the control group. Essentially, not only do yard signs increase name recognition, but they also translate directly into votes in low-information races.
Now or later? In high-profile races that people are paying attention to, voters are able to recognize the names of candidates much earlier than in low-information campaigns. In these cases, campaigns interested in using signs as a tactic to increase name ID should get signs in yards sooner rather than later. Candidates in low-information contests can wait until closer to Election Day and still capitalize on the boost in name ID from the campaign yard signs.
Ben Donahower writes about campaigns signs from a political operative’s perspective at Campaign Trail Yard Signs. Some campaigns get advice about signs from a printer, but Ben makes campaign yard sign recommendations to candidates rooted in political principles.