Day 6

Why researchers say lawn signs could help predict election results

If you really want to know who will win the upcoming election, just look at the signs in your neighbourhood, say Calgary-based researchers Janet Brown and Duane Bratt.

Signs offer 'a good sense of who is and who is not in the running,' says pollster Janet Brown

Lawn signs may do a better job of predicting which candidate in a given riding will have the most success on election day, according to pollster Janet Brown. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press)
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If you're not one to trust polls, research suggests that taking stock of the political lawn signs in your riding might be a good way of determining who will win an election.

During the 2015 federal election campaign, pollster Janet Brown and political scientist Duane Bratt meticulously counted signs and spoke with voters in Calgary Centre, a key battleground riding.

The results: the more signs that are erected for a certain candidate, the better chance they have of winning, Brown says.

"A national poll may not apply to your riding, so those lawn signs are going to help you know who's running — and they're also going to give you a good sense of who is and who is not in the running," she explained.

Brown and Bratt initially canvassed three Alberta ridings in 2014 during that province's provincial election.

With one person driving, and the other counting, the pair travelled up and down every street in each riding, keeping a tally of how many lawn signs they saw touting each candidate.

It's a time-consuming process as the researchers couldn't simply take a sample of the riding, Bratt, a professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says.

"You actually have to do the entire riding because you would have these neighbourhood pockets that would be heavily in the bag for one party, and if you only counted those, it would give you a misrepresentation," he said.

'Canary in the coal mine'

Brown says lawn signs offered an important picture into voters' changing political alliances during the 2015 election.

Looking at the riding of Calgary Centre, it was expected that incumbent Conservative MP Joan Crockatt would secure the win in that vote.

But with just over 700 votes, Liberal MP Kent Hehr took the seat. Bratt says that the number of lawn signs supporting Hehr were an indicator of the upset.

"Everywhere we looked, there was a majority of Kent Hehr signs versus Joan Crockatt ... That was telling people, 'No, this is going to be different this year,' and you could visibly see it," he said.

Duane Bratt and Brown's research suggests that signs must be on private, not public property, to have any bearing on election outcomes. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

According to Brown, who runs an independent polling firm, lawn signs may have also predicted the outcome of the 2012 provincial election in Alberta.

Though the Wildrose Party was expected to take the most seats in the provincial legislature, the Progressive Conservatives snuck up from behind, she recalls.

Lawn signs, she believes, told the story before the ballot box.

"People were telling me that Wildrose lawn signs were coming down across the province, and as a pollster, that was kind of the canary in the coal mine that I missed," she said.

Leaving her home earlier this week, Brown noticed a neighbour who previously erected signs for both the Liberal and Green parties had since removed the Liberal sign.

"You'd think that they are decided voters, but sometimes the signs change," she said.

Limited in scope

Brown and Bratt's research may be the only formal look at the impact of lawn signs on Canadian elections. As a result, the research has its limitations.

It reflects just one region of the country, and looks only at urban, rather than rural, ridings.

"[In] rural communities where you have these long country roads, I'm not sure what difference this sign is going to make," he said.

Signs also must be on private — not public — property to have any bearing on election outcomes, Bratt adds.

What's more is that the research looked only at what lawn signs can tell us about how an individual person may vote. Whether or not a greater number of signs for one candidate over another sways undecided voters is unknown. 

Despite living in an age where campaigns are partially fought on social media, both Brown and Bratt believe analog lawn signs have a long life ahead of them.

"It's a subliminal impact as you're driving down the road, as you're taking your evening walk with the dog, you see these signs," Bratt said.

"There's a lot of value in low tech."


To hear the full interview with Janet Brown and Duane Bratt, download our podcast or click Listen above.

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