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How Powerful Is A Political Yard Sign?


As the candidates stump for votes, Republicans in Kansas and two U.S. territories will caucus today, and pick their choices to be the Republican nominee this fall. Many voters will show their support for a particular candidate. Long before they cast any votes, they might put up a poster or plant a yard sign for their candidate. These signs spring up like mushrooms every campaign season. Do they actually work?

Costas Panagopoulos is a professor of political science at Fordham University. He wanted to find out, and joins us on the line from New York. Thanks for being with us.

COSTAS PANAGOPOULOS: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: What's your fascination with yard signs?

PANAGOPOULOS: Well, I think it probably came from when I was a candidate for the Massachusetts state legislature in 1992. One of the main preoccupations of the campaign was getting a very vociferous street sign and lawn sign campaign up and running. And I think that I became quite fascinated with this aspect of the politicking process and then wanted to study it from a scholarly point of view, to examine its effectiveness.

SIMON: How did you measure the effectiveness of yard signs?

PANAGOPOULOS: What I designed was a randomized field experiment that randomly assigned to different voting locations in Manhattan during the 2005 mayoral election - to be treated with street signs that said, Vote Tomorrow, that encouraged people to vote. These were nonpartisan signs held up by groups of volunteers at strategically selected precincts. And then after the election, we measured voter turnout, and compared those places where we had volunteers with street signs to those places where we did not have volunteers with street signs. And we found that turnout was significantly higher in those voting locations and precincts where we did expose voters to street signs.

SIMON: But isn't getting someone to vote different and, in a sense, easier than getting them to vote the way you want to because of a street sign or yard sign?

PANAGOPOULOS: Well, I think what we wanted to demonstrate was that this particular technique - holding up some type of sign - can be effective. Now, we had a nonpartisan message. We assume that a partisan message could have been as effective - perhaps it would have been more effective, if anything. But our first cut at this was to see if they could be effective. And given that we found that they are effective, we now presume that they can be effective as partisan messages to promote a particular candidacy.

SIMON: I guess we're all creatures of our individual experience. And I can't help reflect on the fact that growing up in Chicago when Richard J. Daley was the mayor, I remember there was a Republican opponent he had named John Waner, who papered the city with street signs and yard signs. Have you ever heard of Mayor Waner of Chicago?

PANAGOPOULOS: I have not. I've heard of Daley.


SIMON: Well, that's because he, you know, that's 'cause he only got like four votes. The point is no matter how many yard signs were up there, Richard J. Daley was re-elected.

PANAGOPOULOS: Well, I think that it would be very unusual if any of these tactics actually were decisive in elections. I think that there are much more fundamental factors that often determine the outcome of elections. But at the margins, mobilizing voters can be very important. And particularly in close, competitive races, they can make a difference in determining the outcome of an election.

SIMON: Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science at Fordham University, thanks so much.

PANAGOPOULOS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.