Does the lawn sign divide matter?

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

Tim Wu
4 min readNov 2, 2020


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…



Tim Wu

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