We are at the pinnacle of political sign season - these things are everywhere! But what work are they really doing? Is there anything you can infer about the person who would display one? At one level, it says a lot about someone, but there’s definitely a limit to what you can know about someone who puts out a particular political sign. I wanted to put this out there to prevent a bit of vitriol you might feel toward people who have decided to put out signs for the "the other" candidate. Let’s dive in:
1. They Support and Intend to Vote for That Person
Duh. This is the most obvious, and it's of course possible that someone is merely putting out such signs to fool or troll everyone, but the number of people doing that has to be vanishingly small. If you take the time to put out a sign, you are probably going to vote for that person and thus you support them at least in that way. Perhaps something will get in the way of them making it to the polls, but the sign-displayer will probably move heaven and earth to make sure they cast their vote. That is, the sign-displayer is not lukewarm in their support of the candidate, they are very likely strong supporters.
2. They Want Other People To Know It
A huge reason to put out a sign is that you want other people to see it. Again duh. But something deeper and interesting is going on here as a social behavior. You might say some people, most even, have a desire to be seen, heard, and known. And perhaps they have deep-seated convictions that have led them to vote for a particular candidate. They might experience a lack of integrity if they don’t display a sign - it counts as an act of courage that they are aren’t ashamed of their decision. There’s something to this, right? I’m sure there are many people who will vote in this election who are afraid of the consequences of tipping their political hand and letting people know who they voted for. And this may not be irrational, you might indeed face negative consequences. But we do know that the sign-displayer has weighed this option and has the courage (or hubris?) to display their political leaning.
3. You Don’t Know Why They Support Their Candidate
Whatever convictions mentioned above led to the displaying of the sign, it is not possible for a passerby to know what those convictions are from the sign alone. Does the person have a Trump sign primarily because his administration brokered a peace deal in the Middle East or because they have enjoyed staying in his family’s hotels? You can’t know from just the sign. A political sign really doesn’t allow you to infer that much about the beliefs of the person who chose to display it. There are a host of reasons someone might endorse a candidate and without speaking to them first, it is difficult to know what they are. If you disagree with this, leave a comment - I’d be curious what you think you can infer about the sign-displayer’s beliefs.
4. They Want Other People to Vote for That Candidate
It would be really strange for someone who put out a political sign to report that they were entirely indifferent as to how other people voted. Of course, the sign-displayer can very much be in favor of your freedom to choose otherwise, but given that they support a candidate, and likely have reasons for doing so, those reasons would also likely apply to anyone able to vote. One question is whether signs are effective in garnering additional votes for your candidate. The verdict is not clear, but one interesting finding is that every political sign is estimated to represent 6-10 votes. Now, this is not because the sign changes people’s minds, but rather because the kind of person who would put out a sign in the first place is likely to be an evangelist for that candidate in other more personal contexts and sway hearts and minds elsewhere.
5. You Don’t Know How Much They Prefer Their Candidate Over the Others
This one’s a bit tricky. Clearly, it is enough support and enthusiasm to warrant displaying a sign rather than abstaining. And the support is likely higher than the average person who would vote for that candidate. However, the point here gets to a larger problem with how voting is done, at least in America. The voting system in America does not allow you to assign how much you prefer a candidate over another one.
Imagine a system where you have 10 points, and you can give as many of those points as you’d like to the range of candidates. Someone might give all 10 to their preferred candidate. But, perhaps you’re a bit more nuanced and you realize you don’t support one over the other to that degree, so you give 8 to one and 2 to the other. This would capture your preferences a bit more. And of course, there is a refining problem due to the fact that we could keep increasing the amount of points to get even more clarity on your preference - 20 points, 50 points, 1000 points! You certainly don’t get any of this from a sign. Another angle here is that you don’t necessarily know how that person would rank the candidates. For instance, you might be a Biden supporter who would actually prefer if Trump won rather than the Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen. Or vice versa. This is yet another data point that the American voting system doesn’t allow us to express.
For a more extended conversation on political signage and how it relates to other ways we self-disclose information about ourselves, particularly online, you can watch on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.
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