Study Shows in Elections, Yard Signs Can Be Powerful

Winning an election may lie partly in reading the signs—yard signs, that is. The campaign ads that have popped up in yards and windows across the city could be subliminally sprouting votes.

Michael Haycraft walked past a large red-lettered placard on Church Street on his way to work.

“You know I really don’t pay much attention to signs. They’re just kind of a blot on the scenery I’m afraid, yeah.”

His subconscious may think otherwise.

Vanderbilt political scientists Cindy Kam and Elizabeth Zechmeister found that recognizing a candidate’s name can make voters more likely to choose them—even if they see it for just a millisecond. Last month, they made up a name, printed it on four plastic placards, and planted them in yards outside an elementary school.

Three days later, they sent an online survey to parents who had to drive past the signs to pick up their kids. When asked to choose their top three Council-at-Large candidates, a quarter of the parents included the fictional politician—about ten percent more than those who hadn’t seen the signs.

“Yard signs hit people between the eyes and they don’t have a choice in essence of whether or not they see them. They may not consciously process them, but if they have to go to work, if they have to go to the store, they’re going to drive by those yard signs and what our study shows is that it can make a small difference,” she said.

Kam says this is particularly relevant in local and state elections, where voters have lots of choices, and not much information about the candidates. In these cases, voters tend to leave decisions up to their instincts—instincts that can be swayed by something as simple as a two-dimensional piece of plastic.

“Sometimes voters feel a duty to cast a ballot and when they feel a duty to cast a ballot they’re going to search around for some kind of criteria that they can use—sometimes it’s the sex of the candidate, sometimes it’s the race or ethnicity of the name that they can infer and sometimes, we think, its name recognition,” she said.

Davidson County voters—and their subconscious’s—hit the ballot booths August fourth. Early voting for metro elections ends Saturday.

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