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Yard Signs as Predictor of Election Results

Duane Bratt, Department of Policy Studies
Janet Brown, Janet Brown Opinion Research

Are campaign lawn signs a good predictor of election results? If they are, it looks like Jim
Prentice and Sheila Taylor are headed to victory in Monday’s by-elections. In addition, Gordon
Dirks will squeak out a narrow win in a tough three-party battle. In our count of campaign lawn
signs, Prentice led Calgary-Foothills with 64% of the total, Taylor had 55% in Calgary-West,
and Dirks had 38% in Calgary-Elbow.
Using a team of student volunteers from Mount Royal University’s Department of Policy
Studies, we counted every campaign yard sign on private property in the three Calgary ridings
between October 19 and 23 (we were unable to do the same for the Edmonton-Whitemud by-
election). Importantly, we did this under secrecy so that political parties could not try and
manipulate the results.
Campaign yard signs are used for multiple reasons: for expressing a voting preference in
a secret ballot election, for communicating their preference to their neighbours, and for
communicating their preference to passing traffic. In addition, campaign professionals believe
that each sign on private property is worth around 8 votes. Therefore, we hypothesize that we can
predict an election vote based on the candidate who leads in the number of campaign signs on
private property. We did not count signs on public property because they do not measure voting
intent; they are only used for advertising purposes. More signs may equal more volunteers, but
they do not measure voters. This is especially important in by-elections where volunteers may
come from across the city, but voters are concentrated in one of the three contested ridings. It is
also possible that putting a campaign yard signs may be even more important in a by-election.
This is because yard signs signal likely voters and by-elections traditionally have a lower voter
turnout than general elections. We also counted houses with signs, not the number of signs on a
lawn. So if a house had, say, two PC signs (facing different directions) we only counted it as one.
Our goal is to see whether we can accurately predict the election results solely by
counting yard signs and thereby confirming or falsifying the hypothesis. In a review of the
academic literature, with the exception of a 1978 study in California, this hypothesis has never
been empirically tested.
The project was doable because we only did three urban ridings. Replicating this study
across a general election would be too difficult requiring a large team of volunteers covering a
wide geographical area. In addition, this is a very significant set of by-elections with four ridings
involving the Premier, two Ministers, and two Party leaders. Elbow (Redford) and Whitemud
(Hancock) are also the ridings of the last two premiers.
Foothills Elbow West
Progressive Conservative 955 (63.9%) 415 (38%) 208 (39.9%)
Wild Rose 442 (29.5%) 216 (19.8%) 288 (55.3%)
Liberal 10 (0.6%) 142 (13%) 22 (4.2%)
NDP 9 (0.6%) 15 (1.4%) 1 (0.2%)
Alberta Party 33 (2.2%) 302 (27.7%) 2 (0.4%)
Green Party 45 (3%) n/a n/a

Counting campaign yard signs is an inexpensive and non-invasive means of trying to predict
election results. If our hypothesis is correct and we have accurately predicted the results based on
yard signs, this would add another tool beyond polling data, fundraising dollars, and media
coverage to the horserace speculation around elections. In addition, it would help campaign
professionals determine the utility of yard signs. Finally, this small study enhances the academic
literature on voter behaviour.