Are the Yard Sign Wars Really Worse This Election?

Stories of vandalism and booby traps are everywhere. But passions over free (lawn) speech are about more than Biden vs. Trump.

A Trump-Pence 2020 sign is seen on a lawn, with a spiked trap attached to it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ktsimage/iStock/Getty Images Plus and ucpage/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

On Saturday, the Boston Globe reported on a story of spectacular destruction: the burning of a 15-foot-high sign, made out of 19 bales of hay, each about 1 ton, spelling out “USA VOTE BIDEN HARRIS 2020.” This sign, erected in Dalton, Massachusetts, less than 24 hours before it was set fire (allegedly by a local Trump supporter), was meant to be a response to a proliferation of Trump-Pence signs in the area. “It wasn’t an anti-Trump thing; it was just to match the pro-Trump banners,” Dicken Crane, the farm’s owner, told the Globe’s reporter. “This wasn’t meant to anger anybody or done in anger.”

The story had all the hallmarks of a classic political “yard sign battle” story: dueling neighborly displays, a sudden act of vandalism. But how common are these kinds of extremely newsworthy fights? And what can yard signs—the favorite electoral indicator of presidents and pundits alike—really tell you about the political climate of an area?

I spoke with Anand Sokhey, a political scientist and one of the co-authors (with Todd Makse and Scott Minkoff) of the book Politics on Display: Yard Signs and the Politicization of Social Spaces, to find out more. I asked Sokhey about the relationship between signs and neighborly anger, why some people put up signs and some don’t, and what may drive some people to make a game out of creatively booby-trapping their signs.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: This isn’t really what your book is about—you’re looking at emotions around yard signs, how they change neighborhood relationships—but since it’s how yard signs are often discussed, I’d like to ask: What’s the current state of the literature on whether yard signs “work” to get out the vote, or to tilt the vote to a particular candidate?

Anand Sokhey: There’s been some evidence that signs can help with things like name recognition, and in turnout. One of the things we found in previous work was that yard signs for down-ballot candidates increase voting in down-ballot elections, so it seems like they can play an informational role in those elections. I think the question of whether they “work” when we’re talking about presidential elections—elections with very high name recognition, high saturation—is probably not the question to be asking. For other races, yes, there are some studies that have been done that say that they have some effects.

We wondered, though: Why are people putting up signs? And how do they affect the neighborhood? We started this project a long time ago, but we’ve had the thought that it’s probably more appropriate than ever because, with COVID, many of us are spending tons of time in our residential spaces. We’re getting to see and know our neighbors, and what else do we have to do but take walks? And so those dynamics are probably as relevant as they’ve ever been.

The data this book is based on comes from Franklin County, Ohio; Upper Arlington, Ohio; and Broomfield, Colorado, and dates from 2008–16. In election seasons, you drove street by street, geocoded the locations where yard signs appeared, then combined that information with publicly available data and surveys of local residents. What did you think you’d find out when you started this project? And how did what you ended up discovering surprise you?

We just started out being puzzled about it. We did things like code the amount of traffic on a given street, and we thought maybe people on a street with high traffic would be more likely to put up signs. But you find out that those people wanted to let other people know where they stand—that it wasn’t just about catching the eye of passing traffic [to try to get out the vote for a candidate]. We found out that there’s a combination of expressive and communicative motives.

Can you explain what you mean by that? Like, some people you spoke with wanted to persuade others to vote a certain way, while others wanted to establish their identity in others’ eyes?

That’s right. Sure, some people are thinking that a yard sign is going to actively get a message out, actually move other people to vote a certain way. But in equal measure, people are also thinking, “I just want the world to know who I am, what I stand for.”

That’s one of the things that’s really interesting and compelling about 2020. We are in a place right now in this country where identity politics are at the forefront. They’re constantly getting primed by our politicians. Our candidates are saying, It’s us versus them—in-group and out-group stuff. Signs are very much an expression of identity, saying who you are, tying that identity to a space.

One of the things that was really clear from our studies is that signs are really important to people who display them. They’re emotionally invested in these dynamics and are more likely than people who don’t put up signs to say that it’s a good thing, or a reasonable thing, for neighborhoods to be doing.

I also think this is why we hear about these stories of theft and vandalism—people going to extremes around signs. At least seemingly, in news reports, it can accelerate fast, from people putting up signs to some kind of an altercation, a police report, a fight on the street. I think it’s because people view it as a real affront when someone messes with their expression of self.

OK, so recently I was on an errand outside of town, and I drove past the end of a long country driveway. The resident had a Trump-Pence sign, and next to it was a handwritten additional sign that said: “I’m watching you, Democrat fascist. Don’t take my sign again.” I got a real feeling of how angry that person was.

And every year we seem to get stories like this, about sign-taking and countermeasures people take. So I was interested to read about you guys cataloging instances of sign-taking. I wondered whether it’s as prevalent as people seem to feel like it is, or if it just feels like something that happens a lot. And if there are more instances this year. It feels like it!

We did a search on Google News, with a variety of search terms, and have been cataloging it. So obviously we only will know what’s been reported and will have to wait until the end of this election cycle to see if there’s really been an uptick. Anecdotally, it certainly feels like it, but of course these incidents are getting reported and circulated faster because of continued social media saturation.

An interesting new dynamic is that home camera systems are increasingly everywhere, and the prices are coming down. And people are ordering more groceries and supplies to their front doors, because of the pandemic, so they’re getting cameras to be able to monitor deliveries. There’s more surveillance in neighborhoods.

Yes, I assume that’s what that person meant when they wrote, “I’m watching you.”

Right? Anecdotally speaking, I had an experience in our neighborhood where signs were getting stolen, and I went to talk to our neighbors about it. Somebody said, “Oh, so-and-so caught them on camera.” I go look at this video, and it turns out that the people whose sign was taken had booby-trapped the sign with one of those personal alarms, where if you release the pin it emits a really loud sound, like an electronic whistle! This neighbor of mine had fixed it to the back of the sign and put a stake in the ground so if anyone pulled it out, the alarm would trigger. So they had a video of these people, at 3 in the morning, running up, trying to steal the sign, the alarm going off, them freaking out, throwing the sign into the street and driving away. Amazing.

An extremely 2020 story.

Right. There are a lot of interesting open questions about how signs are going to interface with technology in neighborhoods. But as to whether sign-taking has increased, I don’t know—there’s a lot of emotion and the general state of the world, the disruption, economic downturn, health risk—and you have politicians using emotionally laden language, priming identity. Of course, that’s been a feature of the Trump administration, but that’s being activated on the Democratic side as well.

OK, so this is part of the book that intrigued me: You guys studied the way yard signs make onlookers feel. When I saw that one Trump-Pence sign with the accompanying warning, I just felt like a gloom settled over the morning. I felt very grim, in a way I don’t think I’d feel if I saw something similar online.

We asked people in the survey components of our study about emotional reactions; we were limited in the kinds of things we could ask, but we asked about a set of emotions like anxiety, anger, and pride. And we saw a relationship between the sign prevalence right around a person and the triggering of these kinds of emotions. That aligns with the idea that we have an emotional reaction to them, when we’re walking around or going past them.

The thing that’s interesting about anger is that it’s an action-oriented emotion, and so when we’re angry about something, putting our politics on display is something that we feel like we can do. We can put a sign out; we can think and talk about what we might do if somebody took the sign. So it’s just fitting that, with these kinds of dynamics in politics right now, people are doing this.

We studied the influence on people whose environment is saturated by signs. One thing we noticed, for example, is that when we looked at the partisan balance of signs around a person, if somebody lived in a place where they were surrounded by neighbors supporting the opposing candidate, those people were more likely to report that they were anxious on the surveys. And we saw those dynamics both for people who displayed their own signs and those who didn’t. So these things definitely have a blanket effect on the neighborhood and on the space.

One thing I’ve been wondering is whether there may be people who don’t put up signs out of a feeling of vulnerability. It seems like an American privilege, in a way, to be able to say which politician or ideology you support, right where you live, in front of the house where your kids sleep. Did you find any evidence that some people may not display signs because of feeling vulnerable in their communities? Or that people perceive a downside to putting up signs? I’m probably just paranoid!

Well, one thing we did try to see were these dynamics around letting other people know where you stand and how it might affect relationships with your neighbors. And we found out that sign display stimulated discussion in networks, and to a certain extent those discussions were heated, but by and large the dominant narrative that came out of our survey work was not that sign display was promoting incivility.

You really notice, when you’re walking around, those places where signs are battling one another. But when we did spatial analysis to look at the clustering of signs systematically, in a way that would cut through those strong anecdotal impressions, we found that, really, there wasn’t much evidence of the intermingling of signs—the famous Sign Wars, where there’s a Biden sign at one house and a Trump sign next to it. Really, it was more about like-minded clustering: pockets of Biden supporters signaling to one another, pockets of Trump supporters signaling to one another. More solidarity than outright conflict.

I think you’re right that when you put up a sign, you are taking things to a different level, making a statement. It’s a much more visible thing than liking something on social media or forwarding a post—there are all those circumstances where people don’t see the post, or they’re not in your feed, or they’ve put the phone down. But when it’s in your yard or some other visible manifestation, there’s no getting away from it.