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Those Politicals Signs Really Do Send a Message

October 25, 2006

Category: Politics


Editor's note: In the weeks leading up to the election, Dr. Michael Bitzer, chairman of Catawba College's Department of History & Politics, is answering readers' questions about campaigns and elections. To have your questions considered, send them to politics@catawba.edu or mail them to: Dr. Michael Bitzer, Dept. of History & Politics, Catawba College, 2300 W. Innes Street, Salisbury, NC 28144.

By Michael Bitzer, For the Salisbury Post

A candidate for local office wrote in the following question:

Q: What impact do political signs (yard signs, billboards, etc.) have on voters? Is there a saturation point at which voters are actually turned off by the number of a particular candidate's signs? Do voters actually consider the type, creativity or number of signs when they enter a voting booth?

I realize, of course, the importance of name recognition. But, honestly, I wonder if I wouldn't get better results  — for less money  —  by sending $1 to everyone who voted in the last election!!

The flip side of the question is: If signs are NOT effective at reaching voters, what is? What has the most impact on likely, and more especially undecided, voters in local elections?

A: Unfortunately, most political science research has never investigated the impact of yard signs on political campaigns. But that's not to say signs aren't a vital component of any candidate's groundwar strategy. Here's why:

As you noted, the most important thing for candidates to achieve is the all important name recognition. Most political strategists would argue getting one's name out there among voters helps determine voters' choices. That's why most incumbents are usually re-elected: the exposure of office, along with the "perks" of their position, allow current officeholders' names to get a steady level of exposure.

Some political science research that shows that money's greatest impact for challengers is increased name recognition. Once challengers achieve a level of name recognition, then the race is usually on a fairly even battlefield. You can spend money on air wars  —  radio spots or TV advertising  —  but not many people can close their eyes when driving and avoid your yard signs (for those voters who do drive with their eyes closed, let me know and I'll avoid being out on the road until after Nov. 7).

Another reason for having yard signs is that they demonstrate commitment  —  not only by yourself but by your supporters. It is thought that when people place signs in their yard, they commit to your campaign by temporarily altering their property and demonstrate their belief in your candidacy (considering that the National Gardening Association estimates Americans spent $39.6 billion on their lawns last year, that's a pretty big commitment).

When yard signs are used effectively, the average voter may be influenced psychologically by the signs' mere presence  —  the more signs that demonstrate your name, the more influence (whatever slight impact they may have) on the voter's willingness to see you as a viable candidate.

The power of association is something that can't be underestimated in a political campaign. But along with that power of association is the power of perception  —  with more signs out there, you've obviously got the resources to wage a campaign, so potential voters will perceive your campaign as being viable.

And once they consider your candidacy as viable, then you've won a major offensive in the ground war. Perception rules in campaigns: the better the resources, the more convincing your campaign will be taken. Do you want campaign signs that wilt in the rain or humidity? What would be the perception of your campaign then?

Of course, if you wanted to send a dollar to all those voters who cast their ballots in the last election, that would get you recognized. But consider that if one voter got a dollar and another didn't, what signal would that send?

Just think what the non-recipient would say to herself when her friend bragged about getting that dollar from you: "Huh, he didn't send me a dollar. Fat chance he'll get my vote then! In fact, that ticks me off so much that I'll just go vote against him!"

As I repeatedly tell my students, never underestimate what influences a voter  —  it's one of the great mysteries of human behavior, and that's what keeps people like myself employed.

As to the last part of the question, what influences those "undecided voters," that's the holy grail of local politics. Considering that Rowan County had (as of Oct. 7) 31,466 Democrats to 37,015 Republicans, with 16,831 "unaffiliated" voters, registered to cast ballots, figuring out what may motivate those 85,000 potential voters is on everyone's mind. But the bet is on low voter turnout in the Tar Heel state.

The last election where there wasn't a major (presidential, governor, U.S. Senate) race on the N.C. ballot was in 1994. Statewide voter turnout was at 42 percent that year, with Rowan County having 40 percent voter turnout.

Many political analysts are saying that 2006 has the potential to be like another earthquake election: 1994. But that's for another column.

Thanks for your great questions, and best of luck with the campaign (to all the candidates!).