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For some reason, yard signs create extremists. You have myriad professional operatives in one camp and “eager beaver” supporters, as David Mowery recently called them, in another. I fall somewhere in between.

I started selling yard signs to campaigns in 2009 and what I’ve learned is that most of what consultants think they know about signs is wrong. Neither side of this debate has taken a hard look at the data to understand how signs can help campaigns — or not. Here’s what you need to know before your next sign war heats up.

Yard Signs Are Not a Waste of Time

Critics like Mowery argue signs are ineffective because they don’t increase a candidate’s name ID, help get a message to voters or improve GOTV. But those criticisms are based on gut feelings and anecdotal evidence. In fact, a 2005 study conducted in New York City showed that signs can increase voter turnout. Moreover, Mel Kahn, who teaches at Wichita State University, found that signs do increase candidate name recognition — especially in low-information races.

Scholars have also found that yard signs have other benefits, such as helping with volunteer recruitment and can be barometers of supporter enthusiasm. And those are just a few academic examples. There’s just too much evidence that yard signs do affect important elements of the campaign to dismiss them based upon a feeling.

Yard Signs Aren’t a Panacea

It’s just as important to keep in mind that these affects aren’t dramatic. If your candidate is trailing by eight points, sign believers will find that unfortunately your tracking poll isn’t going to show a complete turnaround the day signs go up in people’s yards. Just because signs have an effect on campaigns in a number of areas, doesn’t mean that it will be the deciding factor in any given race.

On their own, signs aren’t especially effective. That said, there are few winning campaigns that rely on one voter-outreach tactic. Signs are best used as part of an integrated marketing campaign along with direct mail, phone banking, and other tactics.

How To Approach Sign Strategy

There are a variety of factors which determine whether a campaign needs signs, how much to budget and how to deploy them. For instance, how well known is the candidate? Is the candidate running in a high-profile race or down ballot? Is the campaign grassroots or media driven? Will fundraising be a challenge or are financial resources plentiful?

When you answer these questions, you’ll be able to determine sensibly whether and to what extent yard signs should be a part of the campaign.

It’s important to keep in mind that most U.S. campaigns are much closer to the proverbial dog catcher than the races that most of us have worked on professionally. When you’re running for town council or state representative, more often than not you have a limited number of tactics available to you between limited financial resources and the size of the district. TV and radio don’t make sense in those campaigns since most of the ad spend would go to viewers outside of the district.
Most forms of direct voter contact, on the other hand, do make sense.

It’s easy enough, for example, for canvassers to follow up with a yard sign ask if they find an enthusiastic supporter at the door. In fact, many volunteers and supporters request yard signs. Is it worth the fight to deny them? Conversely, is it worth a couple of bucks to keep a regular phone banker happy? I say no to the former and yes to the latter.

How Much to Budget for Yard Signs

I’ve written quite a bit about how many yard signs a campaign should purchase and what to budget for them, but a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation is: Number of voters in the district multiplied by expected turnout multiplied by vote goal divided by six equals the number of signs to order.

From there, you should modify the number based upon the factors discussed earlier and to what extent the campaign is investing in other tactics that have similar benefits to yard signs — especially when it comes to candidate name recognition.

You’ve heard it, maybe said it, countless times: “Yard signs don’t vote.” Neither do postcards or TV ads, but what signs do, according to a plethora of scientific studies, is increase candidate name recognition, increase voter turnout, as well as encourage voters and volunteers alike.

There’s no need to believe that yard signs work or that they don’t. There’s data that verifies their value to campaigns. The sign war is real.

Ben Donahower writes about campaigns signs from a political operative’s perspective at Campaign Trail Yard Signs.