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Cheap Signs Deliver Electoral Bang for the Buck

FILE - Various campaign signs crowd one corner of Washington, D.C., in November 2014.

FILE - Various campaign signs crowd one corner of Washington, D.C., in November 2014.

As campaign season heats up in the United States, yards and roadsides will soon sprout thickets of campaign signs; but, do these low-budget advertisements do candidates any good?

Barely, according to a new study. Compared to other tools, however, they're not a bad investment.

Lawn signs are "about the most ubiquitous and visible campaign strategy that virtually every political campaign, from county dog catcher to president, employ," said Old Dominion University political science professor Josh Zingher, co-author of the new research.

No one, however, had studied whether the signs make a difference on election day, Zingher said.

Working with four recent campaigns, Zingher and colleagues found that signs added around a percentage point-and-a-half to a campaign's share of votes on average — and while not much, that could make a difference in a close race, he noted.

"You're talking about a single intervention generating these effects," said Fordham University political science professor Costas Panagopoulos, who was not involved with the research. "It really is not something you can easily dismiss."

Zingher noted that the signs are cheaper than knocking on doors, making phone calls or sending out direct mail, and much less expensive than television ads.

In an era of polarized politics, "when people are unpersuadable about who they are going to vote for," he added, campaigns are fighting for the last few marginal voters.

In that scenario, Zingher concluded, "Yard signs have a similar effect to most other campaign tactics — which is small."

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.