Here's my October column for my hometown newspaper, the award-winning @HollandSentinel...
The one and only time there was a sign in my front yard, it wasn’t my idea.
My wife decided to celebrate my 40th birthday by hiring someone to put 40 pink flamingos in front of the house. And then, a sign close to the street announced: “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s 40!” By the next morning, happily, both the flamingos and the sign were gone.
I’ve never put out a yard sign for an upcoming election, and not because I don’t have strong political convictions. I do, just ask me. But putting a sign on the front lawn and announcing my political preferences to the world has always seemed to me like picking a fight, like taunting my neighbors, a bit more aggressive than I need to be. Mostly, with only one or two exceptions over the years, I try to get along with the people who live on my street.
I grew up in a household where voting was considered a private, almost sacred duty. My parents never told their children how they were going to vote, though I’m almost certain they voted Republican every time they went to the polls. (I have reasons to believe that my mother voted for Johnson over Goldwater in 1964, but she still won’t tell me because, as she says, quaintly, “voting is a personal, private matter.”)
Few people think about their votes like that anymore. These days I can’t avoid knowing how everyone in my neighborhood intends to vote. Yard signs are coming up everywhere like dandelions. One of my favorites, on a street I drive almost daily, is homemade, apparently after the theft of the official kind: “Some socialist stole our signs—Trump 2020.” (Just to be clear: Socialists don’t steal; they want everything handed to them.)
My guess has always been that yard signs don’t do much to influence an election. I’ve never seen a sign and then thought, “You know, I should go home and re-read that candidate’s platform.” But the truth is, signs do make a difference. According to a 2012 study by researchers at Columbia University, signs typically “have an effect that is probably greater than zero but unlikely to be large enough to alter the outcome of a contest that would otherwise be decided by more than a few percentage points.”
I know it’s naïve these days to trust experts, but I was trained to trust a peer-reviewed research paper over, say, my cousin Dave’s strongly held opinion. With that in mind, I found another, more recent study about yard signs, and that study was also more positive than I expected. Researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder found that yard signs might actually be good for democracy. They show solidarity with neighbors who agree and spark dialog when there is disagreement. (Seriously, does that ever happen?)
The project took more than ten years to complete, involved researchers from three universities, and included 30,000 households across four elections and three research sites—two in Ohio, one in Broomfield, Colorado. Sounds like slipshod research to me—I mean, I don’t know a single person who was interviewed, do you?—but I kept reading. Anand Sokhey, a political scientist, concluded: “There is something very powerful about putting a sign in your yard and saying this is who I am and this is what I believe.”
I was surprised to learn that men, white people, high-income individuals, families without kids, and churchgoers are most likely to put up yard signs, as are—not surprisingly—extroverts, ideologues and partisans. I fit more than one of those categories, but have never had the urge to put a sign out front.
One final bit of research data: Those who stumble upon yard signs report intense emotional reactions, with one in five saying they make them anxious, one-third saying they make them proud, and one-fourth saying they make them angry.
The response that most signs provoke in me is to wonder if they accomplish what we all, presumably, are hoping for—namely, a better country where all people are given the opportunity to flourish in safety and security.
I will continue to believe what I learned in childhood. Voting is a personal and private matter. I don’t need to put signs on my lawn. People who know me don’t have to guess about my allegiances. I’m going to follow President Trump’s strong leadership and reject scientific consensus: I think yard signs are a bad idea.
Douglas Brouwer lives in Park Township. Contact him, if you must, at firstname.lastname@example.org.