Paul Brown: Signs of the times

paul-brown-SQAs I drove home last week along Route 299, I wondered about the effectiveness of the large numbers of political campaign signs lining the sides of the road. I also thought about the motivation behind the candidates’ decision to display them and what they thought they achieved. Did they believe that the signs influenced voter behavior?

A search of the internet and a review of the surprisingly few published research articles on the impact of political signage showed that there is no credible evidence whatsoever that these intrusive signs influence voter behavior. The only thing they seem to accomplish is some degree of name recognition. Researchers have found that if you put someone’s name on a road sign, more people will recognize that name in a list shown to them a few hours and days later.

President Obama demonstrated during his 2008 campaign that he understood the results of this research when he eschewed the use of campaign signs. He knew he enjoyed a 100% name recognition score so what difference would they make? As a result, Obama supporters requesting a sign for their yard were actually charged a fee. Many chose to pay the fee, so it seems that supporters at least appear to like the signs. On the other hand, as we all well know, yard signs don’t vote.


So what is the rationale behind the decision of politicians to purchase the signs and the effort of volunteers to place them on every available patch of ground? The justification for this blight on our landscape at election time generally seems to be, “we’ve always done it that way” or “my opponent is doing it so I have to as well.”


And the cards and letters

As if we needed more reminders that U.S. voters go to the polls on the first Tuesday in November, my mailbox this fall was the receptacle for 51 cards, letters and various other pieces of mail in support of or in opposition to one of the many candidates hoping to be elected.

Do these mailings make a difference? It turns out there are even fewer academic studies of mailer impact than political signage impact. The best that can be said of the mailers is that some meagre evidence exists which indicates that both positive and negative mailers stimulate the ‘intent to turn out’ to vote. Again, no evidence at all that actual voter turnout takes place or that the mailers have any impact on which particular candidate receives a vote.

One thing we do know about political signs and direct mail is that about half of those candidates who use them get elected each November. These are much better odds than you get in a casino. So, just as people will continue to gamble, politicians will continue the tradition of using signs and direct mailings. Superstitious behavior works that way.


What about “Vote No” signs?

Voters in the New Paltz Central School District were confronted with at least two very large yard signs and one piece of direct mail urging them to vote ‘no’ on the $52.9 million capital improvement project recommended by the members of the Board of Education. Did the signs and letter impact the vote? Well, there was a 50% chance from the outset that the result would be negative, and it was. Out of a total of 2,610 votes cast, 1,380 were ‘no’. Thus 53% of the voters were pleased with the outcome while 47% were disappointed. One day social science research may in fact be able to tell us to what extent “Vote No” signs and mailers impact voting behavior, but it has yet to provide us with a definitive answer.

There will no doubt be much discussion among supporters of the project as to what went wrong. The number of those eligible to vote in the New Paltz Central School District is 13,035. Given the current approximate enrollment of 2,200 students in our schools, it seems reasonable to estimate that between 1,000 and 1,500 of these voters are the parents of our community’s school children. I know that some of them were disappointed that the proposition failed. With only 150 votes having made the difference (less than a three percent margin), and only 20% of the eligible voters in our community having turned out to vote, these numbers would appear to represent a logical talking point for any future strategic planning.

Another discussion point in the months to come will be whether those who voted ‘no’ will attend upcoming School Board meetings, engage individually with School Board members and speak out in other ways as to what they see as the best way forward for our school district. We certainly know what these voters don’t want. Less clear is what they do want. Perhaps it’s time to let the School Board members know.

There is one comment

  1. George Airday

    There’s plenty of research on the effect of advertising on the marketplace. Name recognition is a necessary first step. Actual voting behavior for a candidate whose name pops up on roadside signs is another matter. The profusion of signs imploes popularity of a sort. In many jurisdictions, signs in public are strictly regulated and when posted on lampposts often result in $75.00 fine per sign! At the very least the campaigns, winners and losers both, should be required to collect the signs. Their presence is polluting the landscape. The failure of any real content in the signs, lacking any message to the public, is more egregiois.

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