Campaign signs are out months before a mayoral election. Do they even impact the outcome?

Studies have suggested lawn signs can help with name recognition and have an effect in close races.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Campaign signs for the Salt Lake City mayoral race have sprouted up all over city neighborhoods. Multiple signs are seen on Tuesday, June 6, 2023.

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With months still to go before Salt Lake City residents vote for a mayor, neighborhoods and busy intersections are sprouting dozens of signs touting candidates for the city’s top elected position.

Former Mayor Rocky Anderson announced last year he would run for a third term for mayor more than a decade after his second by challenging incumbent Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who announced her reelection campaign in April.

Signs for Anderson and Mendenhall have started cropping up around town — sometimes in droves seemingly overnight — months ahead of the November election.

Tim Chambless, who taught courses for decades in the University of Utah’s Political Science department and the U’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and still teaches some political science courses, hasn’t seen as many lawn signs up this far ahead of an election in the many decades he’s lived in Salt Lake City.

He said lawn signs can be a mixed bag.

They can help because they increase name recognition, he said.

“Folks who are generally aware there’s an election coming, in the back of their mind they’ll say, ‘Oh I saw that lawn sign there,’” Chambless said.

But if lawn signs get weathered or blown around, he added, they can become a blight.

They’re still used often because there’s a perception that they help rather than hurt, Chambless said.

A study from 2015 found the signs scattering neighborhoods may not accomplish that much but could make a difference in a close race.

The study led by Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University, claims the “first rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of lawn signs.”

Researchers worked with four campaigns in different elections to conduct experiments that focused on a total of 376 precincts in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Based on pooled results from the four experiments, lawn signs are “on par with other low-tech campaign tactics such as direct mail that generate … effects that tend to be small in magnitude,” the study reads.

It found lawn signs raise vote shares, on average, by a little more than one percentage point — an effect the study describes as “modest” and “unlikely to be large enough to alter the outcome of a contest that would otherwise be decided by more than a few percentage points.”

Another study from 2011 found name recognition, including from lawn signs, can give candidates an advantage in political races in which voters know little about the contenders.

The study by Vanderbilt University political scientists Cindy Kam and Elizabeth Zechmeister found individuals favor candidates with more familiar names and think candidates with more familiar names are more viable.

Kam and Zechmeister conducted three laboratory experiments and a small-scale field experiment in Nashville, Tenn., for their study, “Name Recognition and Candidate Support.”

Kam said the information is important for candidates and their campaign teams.

“With limited resources, campaigns must decide how much to spend on yard signs, buttons, bumper stickers and other strategies that serve to increase the public’s familiarity with the candidate’s name,” Kam said in an article the university released about the study. “Our study suggests that such efforts can pay off.”

Name recognition usually isn’t a problem for incumbents like Mendenhall. But Anderson hasn’t held an elected position in more than a decade, Chambless said.