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I just don't see that there is any possible benefit, in the case of presidential elections anyway. I don't think there are many, if any, registered voters who haven't heard of Donald Trump or Joe Biden, so the goal can't be to raise awareness. There isn't any need to raise awareness of something everyone is already aware of.

I also find it extremely hard to believe any undecided voters could be persuaded either way just because they saw a sign with a couple names on it. I believe many are even given away for free, so it can't just be fundraising method. I get some of the appeal for the sign's owner; it's virtue signalling to his or her friends and neighbors, which inherently feels good. I don't understand what the candidate on the sign gets out of it though.

Since every candidate ever uses them, I know I must be missing something, but I can't figure out what.

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    I'm shocked this hasn't been asked before, but I can't seem to find a duplicate. Good question! – divibisan Oct 8 at 1:39
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    I was also surprised, and I also looked for a question about bumper stickers, which are similar. – Barmar Oct 8 at 19:42
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It firms up the base. If you are willing to put up a sign then you have "picked a side" and you are less likely to forget to vote.

It helps canvassers. If you have a sign up, then canvassers know what to expect if they knock (This is a supporter, we only need to remind them to vote. This is an opposer, expect a hostile reception)

It functions as a reminder to the rest of the base: "we think this is important, if you don't vote you are letting us (your neighbours) down." There is a social aspect to voting and voting decisions.

It is expected. It is part of the ritual of elections.

It might sway a few undecided voters, it probably can't hurt, and it's cheap.

Finally, many people have their own echo chambers, and mostly hear opinions that match their own. This can remind people that there are supporters of "the other candidate" even in their own neighborhood, making it seem possible to change their vote. It might encourage people to look at election literature--watch a debate. It might be the start of a process that leads to a person changing their mind.

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    Regarding canvassers, I think you might have it the wrong way round. Friends of mine went canvassing in last year's UK election and said that the canvassing teams essentially keep lists of likely voters for their party and aim to maximise turnout among those. They focus much less on convincing undecideds – waltzfordebs Oct 8 at 7:54
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    However if you have a 'Candidate/Party X' yard sign, it's possibly useful to a canvasser from 'Candidate/Party Y' to know to avoid the property, or expect a degree of hostility. – Neil Tarrant Oct 8 at 10:49
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    It is also a way for a campaign to raise money by selling the signs. – Joe W Oct 8 at 13:01
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    @barbecue Both Trump and Biden sell yard signs in their online campaign stores. – Joe W Oct 8 at 13:23
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    In local elections, I can be swayed by yard signs. If I know one of my neighbors to be highly intelligent and generally on the same ideological spectrum as myself, a sign in their yard would be influential. In local elections sometimes there aren't the resources to make an informed decision like there is in a national election. – user2259438 Oct 8 at 18:34
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I'm sure you've heard the term 'political momentum'. That is really a misnomer: what people mean by 'momentum' is a kind of growing social pressure for the campaign and candidate that pushes the candidate into the public consciousness. Political signage (though it seems archaic) is an important part of this pressure. It has two advantages:

  • It allows individual citizens to make clear public expressions of their political allegiance, at very low cost, which increases their sense of commitment, unity, and belonging.
  • It brings awareness of the candidate and the election into areas of life (driving down the street; walking through a neighborhood) that aren't easily reached by other methods, generally increasing the candidate's salience and public presence.

One of the goals of any political campaign is to keep the candidate and the election in people's minds as much as possible, because the more people are reminded of the candidate and the election, the more likely they are to turn out and vote for the candidate. The average citizen has a tendency to compartmentalize: to keep various aspects of their lives in separate mental boxes. The 'politics/election' box tends to get shuffled off into a corner of the mind where people too often forget about it; the aim of a campaign is to keep bringing that box back into the center of attention. Being confronted with yard signs every time one leaves the house helps do just that.

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While political science has generally thought that yard signs do not have an effect on election results, there's at least one study (so NOT dispositive, because one scientific study does not "prove" anything) that says the effect is small.

https://www.politico.com/story/2015/12/campaign-lawn-signs-little-effect-217166

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    Great job on finding actual sources on the topic. It's remarkable that it seems like only little research has been done on the subject. – Ivo Merchiers Oct 9 at 10:24
  • Oh there is plenty out there, but one would need to search a real database like ProQuest or such, looking at political science journals. Most people just use Google. Admittedly I did, but I wanted to find something that translated academic research, since the stats in the academic articles would probably overwhelm most who aren't specialists. – Nate Oct 10 at 14:28
  • @IvoMerchiers Indeed. I just searched JSTOR for abstracts with the words "election", "yard", and "sign" and received thousands of results. Even at a cursory glance, the first few pages are all on this topic. – indigochild Oct 11 at 3:01
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Most candidates employ the practice of signage b/c they realize that some electors are swayed by the juvenile logic of popularity contests. As the argument goes, "if he/she is popular and hence likeable, he/she can't be that bad". It's really a practice that reflects the dumbing-down of an election.

Moreover, the practice undermines the principle of fairness. The cost of signage is high, which limits the efforts of those without the financial resources behind them.

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    "The cost of signage is high," as far as campaign spending goes, I would argue that it's quite low. – Brandon_J Oct 8 at 17:48
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    Agreed with @Brandon_J . I'll bet the cost for all the signs is comparable to the cost for a handful of TV commercial spots. – Barmar Oct 8 at 19:39
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    ^^ You must be made of money. I had a close friend run as a candidate in a municipal election. Running a campaign is not cheap. A small sign, for example, is $50 a piece. 500 signs x $50. You do the math. That is why elections are bought and paid for by the corporate class at anything larger than municipal elections. – Beginner Biker Oct 8 at 20:17
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    No, a few seconds with a search engine will show custom lawn sign ranges from < $1 in small quantity up to around $10. Some traditional styles such as paperboard stapled to sandwich a wood stake/cross may trade cost for labor, but campaigns get that mostly from volunteers - which often goes for installation, repair after storms and vandalism, etc too. – Chris Stratton Oct 8 at 22:03
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    The "logic" of popularity contests may be juvenile or not, but it's how most middle-of-the-road voters end up making their decisions. Most research evidence indicates it was ever thus. And if it was ever "better" I don't see the historical evidence. – Nate Oct 10 at 14:30
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They're a form of advertising. This is like asking why politicians do TV adverts, why they send out leaflets, why they produce Facebook ads, or anything else. Or for that matter why Coca-Cola does some of these things. Advertising changes people's behaviour, despite the difficulty of finding out which adverts effected a change for which people.

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