With a bit less than three weeks to go before the election, let's pause to think about a little-discussed element of today's high-tech campaigns. Consider the humble campaign yard sign. Is there a more retro and prosaic feature of American electoral politics?
One day, as our dog and I walked along a low-volume-traffic street in Newton, Massachusetts, I saw a "Scott Brown for Senate" sign that hadn't been there the day before. Within a week, the same block had two "Elizabeth Warren for Senate" signs pop up on neighbors' lawns. Then, in rapid succession, a couple more signs for Brown showed up.
I began to wonder what motivates people to engage in this particular form of political participation. Are they simply making a bold statement of preference for candidate or party? Are they hoping to persuade others to be like-minded?
Or is there something more aggressively oppositional happening? When the initial sign is quickly followed by a flurry of others, are the newer-sign folks essentially giving a middle-finger salute to the neighbors down the block? Oh yeah?! HERE's what I think of your Obama!
Political scientists haven't paid much attention to this whole question. That's sort of amazing to me, in light of both how long yard signs have been a staple of American campaigns and what a public form of political participation it is. But into this void have stepped two intrepid scholars, Todd Maske and Anand E. Sokhey, authors of a paper titled "Not in My Front Yard! The Displaying of Yard Signs as a Form of Political Participation." They surveyed people in Franklin County, Ohio, who posted yard signs during the 2008 campaign.
Their study confirms much of what one would intuit about the subject. Maske and Sokhey found that "partisanship, ideological extremity, and political activism are characteristics of most individuals who engage in yard sign posting" and that people who engage in this form of political participation believe in "the power of yard signs to convey messages and information."
The authors only obliquely address what I think of as the "F-U Theory" of Yard Signs. Their findings, dampening my fun, suggest that far more people (93 percent) feel that "showing pride" is an important motivation behind their sign posting than feel that "letting the neighbors know" where they stand (75 percent) is important as a motivator. But they also found that people who live in politically heterogeneous neighborhoods are more likely to say they're "letting the neighbors know," and that people "whose neighbors have a sign in their yard are more likely to cite this motivation, whether the neighbor displays a sign for the same or the opposite candidate."
So, there is a fair amount of "up yours!" going on here, but not quite as much as I hoped. There's also a fair amount of "right on!"
The authors conclude by urging their colleagues to continue with this important line of inquiry. "[W]e contend that researchers should not be afraid to ask about motives and other challenging psychometric self-reports as we seek to understand political participation, communication, and engagement." My translation: Get out there and ask those sign posters more questions about what the hell they're doing!
Incidentally, the dog isn't nearly as interested in yard signs as I am. But today she was shocked and awed by a neighbor's lavish Halloween display. The yard had ghosts and goblins and all sorts of stuff that made her crouch and bark. To me, it wasn't nearly as scary as some of the campaign signs I've seen.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.