Do All the Trump Lawn Signs Mean a Landslide?

By David Mills Published on September 24, 2020

People write about all the Trump lawn signs they’re seeing and take that as evidence that the president is more popular than the polls show. They don’t see many Biden signs. Some think all those signs means the president will win. Maybe in a landslide.

Which may well be true. Or not. The yard signs don’t necessarily signal a Trump victory. The trouble with signs is that they don’t always say what you think they say.

Two Ways of Reading Them

The sociologist George Yancey offers two ways of reading the yard signs. He explained in a Facebook post that cycling around his neighborhood he saw a lot of Trump signs and American flags. Four years he didn’t see any, until just before the election. It’s a slightly blue neighborhood in a slightly red city in a red state. (He teaches at Baylor. He may be best known for his work on “christianophobia” and racism.)

Yancey offers two possible explanations. Being a sociologist, he’s careful to point out that he’s talking about an unrepresentative sample and making educated guesses. He could be wrong.

His first explanation is that “Trump being in office has made it a little easier for people to say that they support him.” Four years ago he was a real estate developer and reality tv star. “Not,” Yancey says, “a good look.” It’s easier for people to support him in public now that he’s been president for almost four years.

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If this is true, “it is possible that there is less of a hidden Trump vote than conservatives may think. That was the vote that gave Trump the important swing states and thus the presidency. This means that the polls that show Biden with the lead are more accurate than those that show that Clinton was in the lead four years ago. That would not bode well for a Trump reelection.”

The other explanation is that “the social desirability pressure is same as it was four year about but that Trump has more supporters and thus more people willing to place signs and flags in their yard.” If that is true, he says, “the prospects of a Trump reelection may be stronger than we think.”

Trump-lovers and Biden-likers

My guess is that the truth sits between the two poles Yancey gives, but with an even more important difference. Trump’s supporters feel less pressure to keep quiet and his being president has made it easier for people to admit they support him. So more people put out yard signs.

But that many yard signs? And that many more signs than Biden has? I think there’s another cause. This difference is even more important. Trump’s supporters feel more identification with their candidate and feel more strongly than Biden’s that his election is crucial.

Biden’s supporters may despise Trump. You can see that in the news and on Facebook. But hating the other candidate doesn’t mean working enthusiastically for your own. You don’t put up yard signs just because you hate the other guy.

And a lot of Biden voters don’t seem very excited to have the candidate they have. They’re stuck. He’s infinitely better than Trump, but he’s still … Joe Biden. They don’t identify with him. He’s their candidate because he won the nomination, but he’s not their candidate.

All those Democrats hoping for something new, they got the old. The oldest of the old. They wanted a socialist like Sanders or an policy wonk lefty like Warren or one of the other women. Or the gay guy or the tech nerd. And they got the guy who’s been in Washington for decades.

People work harder for things they care about than things they hate. They identify with people they love, not with people they only like better than the other guy. You put up yard signs for the guy you want, not for the lesser of two evils.

Smaller and More Intense

Peter Wolfgang, one of our regular contributors and a conservative activist, sees evidence for both ideas. He was one of the first people I saw commenting on the huge difference in yard signs.

“On the one hand,” he wrote in an exchange about Yancey’s post, “I think the ‘social desirability’ factor has, if anything, moved even more against displaying open support for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. Why risk it when you’re seeing displays of literal anti-Trump political violence on the evening news?”

Trump supporters have been quieter, not louder, he thinks. It can be dangerous to support the president. The left’s hatred of Trump is that strong. He’s a bold man, but even he peeled the “Women for Trump” bumper sticker off his wife’s car when he saw all the leftist graffiti in a D.C. parking garage.

On the other hand, he said, polling backs up what I argued. He points to a Wall Street Journal editorial. “Mr. Trump has reinforced the intensity of his core support,” the editors wrote. “But in doing so he has shed support in the suburbs, especially among college-educated voters and women. … The Trump GOP is a smaller but more intensely loyal coalition.”

If that’s true, Wolfgang says, “Trump voters feel a connection to him that has grown more intense but at a cost.” The cost of the middle-ground voters he needs.

What Do They Mean?

So what do the signs mean? What do all the Trump signs in some places — and some unexpected places, like Yancey’s neighborhood — tell us?

I don’t know. As I said, signs don’t always say what you think they say. But it doesn’t really matter. Look at 2016. All the signs said Clinton had it in the bag. All the experts agreed. But the signs? They really said the opposite.


David Mills is a senior editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. He edits the site Hour of Our Death and writes a weekly column for The Catholic Herald.

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