Every four years in New Hampshire, the presidential primary season is heralded by the flowering of lawn signs. And while yard signs are hardly the most innovative campaign technique available today, a new scientific study suggests these old-fashioned political tools can still have an impact.
In a workshop inside one of Manchester’s old mill buildings, Shane Milley pours a bucket of blue ink onto a flat printing screen. It’s part of a machine called a clamshell press.
“When you first start you gotta kinda let the machine tell you what it’s doing,” Milley explains.
When Milley steps on a pedal the clamshell closes. When it opens, the words “Inspire” and “For President” show in a bold, blue typeface. It’s one half of a lawn sign for the Ben Carson campaign. But that almost doesn’t register with Milley, who can churn out hundreds of these signs in an hour.
“To be very honest, I don’t really notice what’s on them anymore," says Milley.
Many New Hampshire residents may also feel like they don’t notice what’s on them anymore. They’ve seen a few, after all.
But a new study published last month in the journal Electoral Studies suggests that lawn signs might be more than just political scenery. Jonathan Krasno is associate professor of political science at Binghamton University and a co-author of the study. He says that while other campaign techniques like robo-calling and door-to-door canvassing have been studied extensively, there’s been little research on whether lawn signs actually work.
“Lawn signs fall into this category where some people in the campaign believe that they work and some people in the campaign don’t believe that they work," says Krasno. "No one knows for sure and so it’s a kind of, ‘OK, what the hell.' "
Krasno and his colleagues tested the effectiveness of lawn signs in four different elections, from a congressional race down to county commissioner. In each campaign, researchers randomly selected which voting precincts would receive lawn signs. When the votes came in they compared the numbers between the precincts that got signs, and those that didn’t.
The results? “We found that candidates who placed these lawn signs received a 1.7 percentage point increase in their vote share,” says Krasno.
Krasno is quick to say that more studies are needed. But at least for now, the evidence suggests that lawn signs are a good investment. And Krasno says they could be an especially good investment for Republican candidates in New Hampshire this year, where 1.7 points in a crowded field might be the difference between second and fifth place.
Of course lawns signs are a bipartisan affair. In one quiet Concord neighborhood, the lawn sign battle is mostly between Democrats.
Alan Canter has two Hillary Clinton signs in his yard. And he thinks they'll make a difference -- if only a modest one.
“I don’t think people are convinced but it reinforces a sense of momentum," says Canter. "And I think for the few people who might know us they would say ‘oh they’re supporting that candidate, I might give that person an extra shot.' ”
An extra shot that might even lead to an extra vote.