There are three reasons that political candidates still use lawn signs.

The first is tradition. Voters like to plant signs in their yards to goad or entice their neighbors, and political consultants like to do things they’ve done before.

The second is economics. Political consultants like to do things they’ve done before in part because they have made money doing those things before, and while lawn signs aren’t terribly lucrative, nearly everything that can be bought for a campaign can have a bit skimmed off the top for design or management fees.

The third and often most important reason is that candidates like to see their names. Running for office is a remarkable test of one’s self-confidence, centering on asking everyone who lives near you whether they think you’d be good at a particular job. Polls can help assuage concerns about how people feel, but candidates often prefer seeing physical manifestations of enthusiasm. T-shirts. Buttons. Bumper stickers. And, as they’re driving around from event to event, lawn signs.

Campaign managers generally know that lawn signs are useless and a drain on organizational resources, but they also generally know that a happy candidate is a lot easier to manage than an irritated one. So lawn signs are bought and distributed, not infrequently along routes the candidate often travels.

People in Florida took to their boats on June 14 to commemorate President Trump's 74th birthday and Flag Day. (The Washington Post)

However, when you’re running for president, lawn signs aren’t quite enough. Rallies can scratch that itch for recognition — at least when there aren’t deadly pandemics keeping people from getting together to cheer for you. So if you are a politician who eagerly wants to get a sense of how popular you are and if your normal avenues for gauging that approval are curtailed, you may scramble to find something new. And your ever-suffering staff, eager to keep things moving forward, will probably try to accommodate it.

On a related note, here is something that President Trump said last week during an event in Florida.

“We are doing great,” he said of polling in the state. “You see the boaters out. There are thousands and thousands of boats every weekend, and we appreciate it, but nobody has seen anything like it ever. And we have that in many other states with boaters and bikers and everybody.”

What Trump was referring to was a series of boat parades in various states in which boat owners loaded up with Trump flags and floated around hollering about how much they like him. Something like this, which he tweeted out in May.

You get emotional support where you can, and Trump gets it from pro-Trump flotillas.

Trump, the Daily Beast reported Thursday, “has delighted in advisers showing him boater photos and videos that have bubbled up on social media. And during strategy sessions in the past two months, he’s told officials to keep bringing him more and to push out the content on their own accounts, as well.”

Now, if you’re the Trump campaign, you’re in a tough position. While the president clearly embraces the boaters and appreciates the approval they convey, it’s not a great look to have your candidate pointing at random small groups of supporters as evidence that he’s doing well politically. So Team Trump did what it does best: It tried to parlay Trump’s fixation into an ironic attack on former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in November.

“NO BOAT PARADES: ENTHUSIASM FOR JOE BIDEN IS SINKING,” a campaign release declared. The focus was on anecdotal evidence of low support for Biden, but it pointedly included a reference to pro-Trump flotillas. It was a classic Trump move, saying what you mean but playing it off like you aren’t.

Does this tweet, for example, strike you as sincere or insincere?

The campaign team will insist it’s tongue-in-cheek. Trump will see it as an example of pushing out a message he supports.

Since Trump started amplifying the boat parades, I was curious about the actual demographics they represent. Instinctually, people who own boats in Florida seem as though they’re probably part of demographic groups that support Trump anyway, making them the equivalent of driving through an upscale neighborhood where every other house sports a Trump-Pence sign. But, in the interest of accuracy, I decided to dig in a bit further.

While data on the overlap of boat ownership and politics are not immediately available, the infrastructure of modern political campaigns does mean that we can match consumer and voter data in a way that gets at the question. L2, a political data company, shared state-level data combining registered voter data with assessments of the likelihood a voter took a recreational interest in boating. How’s that determined? Data from the consumer reporting company Experian showing things like subscriptions to boating magazines and spending at boating stores — or on a boat itself. This is how campaigns know who to target and how we know who’s likely to participate in a pro-Trump boat parade.

As you’d expect, it’s coastal states that have the most boating enthusiasts, both because they have more people and because, well, they’re on the coast. As it turns out, Great Lakes states have a lot of boaters, too. And across the board, those who are identified as boating enthusiasts are usually a lot more likely to be Republican than are voters overall in a given state.

The map below shows the partisanship of boating enthusiasts in each state, with the dark-colored circles scaled to the number of enthusiasts. Each state’s data is overlaid on a circle representing the electorate on the whole in the state. A state where the dark-red slice of Republican boaters is larger than the light-red slice of Republicans overall is a state where the boating community is more densely Republican. That’s almost every state. (The bigger a dark-colored circle is relative to the underlying lighter-colored circle, the larger the percentage of voters in the state who are boating enthusiasts.)

On average, the boating enthusiast community in a state is 13 percentage points more likely to be Republican than voters in the state overall. The biggest gap is in Georgia, where boaters are a lot more Republican than voters overall, according to the L2/Experian data. The only state where boaters are less densely Republican is West Virginia.

(The rough inverse correlation you can see between the density of boating Republicans relative to the state and how heavily the state voted for Trump in 2016 is mostly a function of it being harder to have a big gap between the density of boating Republicans and Republicans overall in states that are already heavily Republican.)

More important is the density of boaters in the state itself. It’s worth noting here that the data are imprecise, and that we should take all of this with a grain of salt. After all, the greatest density of boaters relative to voters overall is in North Dakota, which seems … nonintuitive.

There are a lot of blue states, you’ll notice, where a decent chunk of the registered voter pool is also flagged as having an interest in boats. But just because 1. boaters tend to be more Republican and 2. some blue states have a lot of boaters doesn’t mean that 3. those blue-state boaters are going to vote for Trump. After all, in Connecticut, the blue state with the largest density of boaters, more of those boaters are Democrats than Republicans.

But, indirectly, it does get back to the Trump campaign’s point: Why haven’t those Connecticuters put together a flotilla of boaters to show their support for Biden?

One reason, perhaps, is that the Biden campaign isn’t as worried about boosting the confidence of their candidate.