They’re coming.

One week from Tuesday, six weeks to the day before the Nov. 6 election, Maine’s electoral Class of 2012 will be allowed under state law to plunk down their campaign signs alongside highways and byways all over this otherwise picturesque state.

You know the drill: By the time Election Day rolls around, those traffic islands on your way to work will be smothered with colorful placards — each bearing a name in large type and, alas, not a whole lot else.

All of which raises a question: Is it worth it? Does all the time, money and energy behind this biennial blossom of bold lettering against bright backgrounds truly affect who ultimately wins and who loses?

It did for Ben Griffin.

I’d formally introduce you to Ben if not for one major obstacle. He doesn’t exist.

Ben Griffin, you see, is the brainchild of Elizabeth Zechmeister and Cindy Kam. Both political science professors at Vanderbilt University, they decided last year to examine the cause-and-effect connection between simple name recognition and success in the voting booth.

“We began from the perspective that voters are going to use the information that’s available to them,” Zechmeister said in a telephone interview Friday. “But we also know that in some elections, there is really very, very little information about the candidates beyond the name.”

Good point. How many times have you stood over your ballot, staring with furrowed brow at the three names listed under, say, the local water district board of trustees, and you haven’t a clue who they are, what they stand for or, most importantly, who most deserves your vote?

That’s where Ben Griffin came in.

As part of a broader study of the power of name recognition, Zechmeister and Kam first consulted various name registries to come up with their unobtrusive, middle-of-the-road moniker.

Then, with a metropolitan Nashville, Tenn., election fast approaching, they had a handful of “Ben Griffin” candidate signs printed and placed them in the yard of a willing homeowner down the street from an elementary school in Nashville.

Three days later, the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, again in cooperation with the researchers, emailed all school parents a link to a brief online survey. To encourage participation, parents were told the school would get $5 for each survey completed.

The survey listed seven candidates running for the county’s three at-large council seats. But only five of the names were real — Ben Griffin and another name were completely fictitious.

Drum roll, please. Of the parents who had driven by Ben’s signs, nearly a quarter put him in their top three. Of those who never saw the signs, only 14 percent thought he deserved a seat on the council.

As Zechmeister concluded at the time, the 10 percent difference was significant “given the small number of days we carried out the experiment and how unobtrusive the signs were.”

So what’s going on here? Has the republic descended to the point where your name — and only your name — is enough to get you elected to public office?

Yes, Zechmeister replied last week, and no.

“Our argument is that absent anything else, in politics name recognition seems to be a good thing,” she said. “In low-information elections, our best guess is that these signs have an effect.”

Zechmeister said that effect all but disappears, however, when voters obtain more information — gender, race or ethnicity, party affiliation, incumbency, to name a few — on which to base their choice.

“Maybe one of the takeaway messages for people is that they might want to stop and think a little bit before they go into the voting booth,” Zechmeister suggested.

Dale Rand would wholeheartedly agree. For the past 32 years, he’s owned and operated a print shop on Washington Avenue in Portland — where last week the signs ready for shipping sat in boxes beneath a large bulletin board filled with echoes (“Joe Brennan for Governor” … “Neil Rolde for U.S. Senate” … “Will Gorham for City Council” ) from elections gone by.

Rand certainly welcomes all the business, but, to be honest, he doesn’t get all this sign madness.

His wife, Anne, served for nine terms in the Maine Legislature and has long assured her husband that in politics, name recognition is Job 1. Still, come November, Rand will be shaking his head like the rest of us.

“If I’m out driving, it looks like a mess — a mess!” he said, surrounded by the soon-to-be-planted crop of cardboard. “You drive up Franklin Arterial and they’re everywhere!”

Among Rand’s many loyal customers is Herb Adams, who’s represented Portland for seven terms in the Maine House and is back running for an eighth. Friday afternoon, as he hiked up Munjoy Hill to deliver a sign for a loyal constituent’s window, Adams conceded that the sign wars can get a tad out of hand.

“It’s a game rather like ballistic missile production,” Adams observed. “Your opponent does a few. You do more. Your opponent therefore does more. And you do yet more. And that is why mushroom colonies of signs — that you have no way of reading — pop up at intersections.”

Adams was amused, but not surprised, to hear about Ben Griffin. He sees Ben’s success as, well, a sign of the times.

“Democracy expects a lot of people,” Adams noted. “The founders of Maine made it very clear in the Maine State Constitution they expected an active, educated population. And that if you picked up the pen to vote, your responsibility was to have picked up a newspaper before then and educated yourself.”

Long pause.

“Which, we all admit, doesn’t always happen,” he added.

Adams thinks — and researcher Zechmeister agrees — that a sign’s impact can depend in large part on its location. One of 100 or more signs in a public median strip, for example, means far less than a sign in your next-door neighbor’s window.

“The old adage in politics is signs don’t vote,” Adams said. “The second adage is that signs in windows do vote. Because that is a person who willingly put your sign in their window and you’re blocking their sunlight for the duration of the election. Those are the true blues.”

That said, experience has taught Adams that signs, while necessary, aren’t the be-all and end-all of running for office.

He still recalls the advice he once received from longtime political guru and former Secretary of State Rodney Quinn, who told Adams that if Maine’s elections hinged solely on who has the most signs, the same guy would win every time.

And who might that be?

“This fellow ‘Night Crawlers,’ ” deadpanned Adams. “A dollar a dozen!”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]