Does the lawn sign divide matter?

Biden leads in polls; Trump leads the lawns — does it mean anything?

Back in the Fall of 2016, when I was working in the White House, it was safe to say that (as the proverb goes) the curtains were being prematurely measured. Everyone had long and foolishly assumed that Clinton was going to win; the question was how to manage the handoff.

Occasionally while making plans, someone would pause say “but, if the unthinkable happens…” the way you’d refer to the possibility of a fire or a hurricane.

During that period I remember chatting with a Florida cousin, who was then a teenager. To my great chagrin and surprise she informed me that Trump was going to win the election. “Silly girl,” I thought to myself, “have you seen the polls?” I asked why she thought that. She said, “His signs are everywhere! I’ve hardly seen a Clinton sign.”

But the polls, scientific and rigorous, said otherwise! Everyone knew the election was a lock for Clinton. Counting lawn signs was just for amateurs. Right?

So, here we are in 2020, and Joe Biden is, like Clinton before him, leading every poll. Yet if you drove around much of the United States, you wouldn’t know it — at least, not if you were counting signs. And especially not if you were going by vehicle parades and rallies.

Few topics seem to provoke more disagreement between professional campaign staff and casual observers. For the layperson, the absence of lawn signs feels like a serious crisis, a visceral blow to the campaign. But professionals say things like “signs don’t vote” and consider spending too much time on signage to be an amateur move, a waste of time and resources, especially compared with more concrete measures like individualized voter outreach.

But could the professionals be wrong about the importance of signs, if not in general, at least in the context of a highly polarized presidential race with tribal overtones?

I do think the professionals have a point, especially when it comes to local elections and primaries. There is always a candidate who makes a big show of having signs everywhere, despite meager support (I’m reminded of the Ron Paul 2008 campaign in Iowa, which probably had more signs — and larger ones — than any other candidate). There is also the fact that many Biden supporters live in cities, and apartments don’t typically have lawns. So the candidate supported in rural areas is almost guaranteed to have the edge on the signage front.

Yet based on the history of propaganda and posters, Biden supporters do have reason for concern. One key to truly effective propaganda is that it be total and dominating; that it, as the saying goes: “admit not the possibility of another choice.” (That is why the Paul 2008 signs were not effective. No one thought that Paul was anything close to the only choice in the GOP primary.) When achieving totality is the strategy, achieving sign dominance in an area attains its own importance. For it suggests that there can be no thinkable alternative to voting for Trump. You need to see an alternative to act on it, in other words. And if your physical reality presents nothing but Trump signs, then there can be no alternative to act on.

The lawn sign is, actually, a descendent of the advertising poster, a fairly new invention dating from the mid-1900s, and its first usage for mass propaganda followed this formula. The poster was used during World War I for recruiting campaigns, and not through a reminder here and there, but a total blanketing of every possible space. Enlisting in the U.K. and the U.S. was presented not as an attractive option, but really the only choice for anyone but a total coward or degenerate.

Trump’s appeal has long turned on the invocation of similar dominating, tribal instincts in his target audience: the white American majority. Trump does not really aim to create a better, more logical argument as to why you should vote for him. Instead, he aims to create an enemy or some horrific future and conjure up tribal loyalty to fight that enemy. And for this, visual displays of unity, like the rally and the uninterrupted parade of signs, are exceedingly important, as his campaign knows.

The truth the very premise — that Trump is ahead in lawn signs — may be wrong is that it is very hard to measure who is really “ahead” in the lawn sign contest. Yet that which is hard to measure can nonetheless be important. It is a mistake made by many elites in our time to over-focus on what can be measured. My sense is that the Biden campaign done a better job than the Clinton campaign did, and has been less willing to concede sign dominance to the Trump campaign on the premise that “signs don’t vote.” There was a time where the campaign was selling signs for $25, which struck me as a bad idea, but I think it seems to have worked to make sure that, at least, Trump signage isn’t fully dominant. For actually winning the lawn sign battle isn’t what matters — it is avoiding the perception that the contest is a blow out.

And by Tuesday, maybe we’ll know more about whether any of this has mattered or not.

Professor at Columbia University; author of “The Curse of Bigness,” “The Attention Merchants,” and “The Master Switch;” veteran of Silicon Valley & Obama Admin.

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