I’m a dog walker and bicycle commuter, so I spend a lot of time on residential streets at less than highway speed. One result of this is that I notice and pay attention to campaign yard signs. As the vote over the proposed anti-abortion amendment approaches, that attention is paying off.
Yard signs get little respect. People say they’re meaningless, yet quickly complain if they suspect efforts to steal them. They’re too basic to share any information besides a single name or message, and so are presumed to have no persuasive impact—but if one candidate distributes signs and their opponents do not, many fear that voters will assume the cause is hopeless, which is the last thing any campaign wants.
In truth, yard signs are a classic 20th-century election tool--and like direct mailing (not yet entirely replaced by e-mailing and texting), door-knocking, or phone-banking, they still play a role. Studies have shown that an effective yard sign effort can impact the behavior of close to 2% of voters—a small amount, but one that might make a difference in a close election. And since the majority of that 2% will likely be clustered around specific residences (the signs you see in your neighborhood have a greater impact on you than those you see on the street), the placement of signs, however seemingly unimportant, may be a signal worth thinking about.
What signal that can be discerned from the yard signs around Kansas for the amendment vote? Going solely off my own limited observations here in Wichita, I can guess at a few.
Pro-amendment signs outnumber anti-amendment signs, but not overwhelmingly—less than the two-to-one Republican-Democratic ratio of campaign signs I’m used to. Also, the correlation between homes where I usually see Republican or Democratic signs and where I’m now seeing pro- or anti-amendment signs is strong, but not total (particularly on the anti-amendment side).
The pro-amendment signs are almost entirely identical—the purple and white image of a mother and child—reflecting the centralized planning, funding, and distribution networks behind the pro-amendment message. The anti-amendment yard signs are more diverse (within a mile of my home I count five different types, and I’ve seen more elsewhere), reflecting the various groups with slightly different messages which many of them prefer to emphasize.
Most striking is the clustering. I’ll see a lone home with a pro- or anti-amendment sign, and a week later they’ve been joined by those on either side, making three amendment signs all in a row. Or a pro-amendment sign goes up, and an anti-amendment sign pops up directly across the street from it, and then another pro-amendment sign appears just two doors down. And so forth.
These observations can’t compare with solid polling, of course. Still, it makes me suspect there is a good deal of discussion, argument, and recruitment taking place behind the doors of the homes where these signs are appearing—certainly more than is typical for an August election anyway.
Yard signs today, whatever their overall impact, are more reflective of personal communication than in years past. The era of operatives marching out to deliver signs in mass to the homes of party or church or club members is a thing of the past. If your neighbor has a sign supporting or opposing the amendment in their yard, the odds are that they bought it themselves, really believe in it, and might even talk about it. That can give neighbors pause, even cause them to rethink. And it is in those realizations and exchanges where close elections can be won or lost.
Dr. Russell Arben Fox teaches politics in Wichita.