Yard signs are one of the great political unknowns. To some, they’re a marker of clear candidate enthusiasm, to others they’re meaningless. And to those big time pollsters who might’ve underestimated their significance in the 2016 election, they probably occupy a little too much free space in the mind.
I've pointed out this contradiction before, but there's a type of person who believes that outward, highly public signs of Trump enthusiasm (yard signs, rally attendance, etc.) are more reliable than polls BUT that Trump voters are too "shy" to tell the truth to pollsters.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) September 9, 2020
It’s not clear that the people Silver is describing actually exist. Still, the yard sign-to-enthusiasm ratio turned out to be much clearer than he (and virtually everyone else) thought it might be last time around. Stephen Hiltner’s famous New York Times piece about Donald Trump signs in the Midwest from October 2016 turned out to be a harbinger of the upset to come. Hiltner described Trump’s supporters as far more enthusiastic than Hillary Clinton’s, with many fashioning homemade signs of their own. At the time, the story was mostly tossed away as trivial nonsense, nothing for Clinton supporters to worry about—until it was.
The enthusiasm gap between Trump and Vice President Joe Biden has been widely reported. Some have reported it as waning, while others have it widening. Either way, Trump almost certainly boasts a far more enthusiastic base than his opponent. Biden, meanwhile, somehow moves the needle less than Clinton did in 2016, which might wind up working in his favor given the negative emotion Clinton enraged among so many. Really, Biden in 2020 is in a similar spot and running a similar campaign to Hillary’s, although he’s got four years of Trump’s boorish behavior, outright corruption, open racism, and unmitigated failures to help him out.
Yard signs still probably aren’t the best election predictor, even after Trump’s 2016 victory. The result, however, turned political media on its ear and left pundits wondering how they couldn’t have seen this coming. They started turning to untraditional (albeit totally predictable) sources to explain Trump’s success, namely white Midwesterners posted up in diners. There was a seemingly unending series of news reports and full stories about these diner-goers and how they represented the pulse of “real” America—just like yard signs. Even now, pollsters and other enthusiastic politics followers search for those untraditional markers that could signal some upheaval or variance from polling. However, it always seems to come back to yard signs.
A single Twitter search is all the proof you need to see the yard sign fixation. One person notices (as Hiltner did) that Trump signs massively outnumber Biden signs. Another says that Biden supporters are afraid to put up yard signs deep in Trump country for fear of being assaulted; a Biden supporter confirms it. A different Biden supporter says that the former VP’s digital deputy director confirmed yard sign demand has been through the roof since Kamala Harris was selected as Biden’s running mate. Another person jokes that if yard signs are an indicator of election results, Biden will finish third behind Trump and “yard sale.” A different user repeats the joke, flipping Trump and Biden.
Just like everything else, the yard sign discourse is pure political fodder. There can be a thousand different indicators and demographic breakdowns and polling shifts over several days and weeks leading up to Nov. 3, but they’ll all be better explained with the context of results as they always are. That’s exponentially true for something as unscientific as counting the number of presidential yard signs during a long drive through rural America. If Trump wins, more people will lean on yard signs as an indicator that this was always going to happen; if Biden wins, maybe the yard sign discourse will be thrown away completely—at least until 2024.