Canvassing is All About Showing Up

(Citizen journalism rocks. - promoted by David)

cross-posted from Activist Land and Daily Kos

I co-lead a local group of Obama supporters preparing to canvass in New Hampshire, the swing state closest to us. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “canvassing” means going door-to-door for a candidate, putting yourself in touch with voters and the canvass on your sneakers in contact with the sidewalk.) One member sent me this question:

How does one prepare for canvassing? My support for Obama is largely subjective based on his handling of various situations. I don’t think that will help me to be an effective canvasser – suggestions?

I’d like to point her to a nice succinct “elevator pitch,” and any links or suggestions would be welcome. But I also want to use this as an opening to hold forth on what canvassing is about, how to enjoy it, and why (to paraphrase Woody Allen) ninety percent of success in canvassing is just showing up.

Research Says… Canvassing Works!

Research shows that canvassing increases voter turnout more than any other form of voter contact (phone, mail). The effectiveness depends on many variables (whether the canvassers are partisan or non-partisan, whether they pitch voting as a civic duty or a way to affect a close race, whether the people being canvassed have already been approached, and so on), but in general it seems that a canvasser can persuade about one contact out of 15 who would have ordinarily stayed home to go to the polls. This effect alone means that if I and a hundred others had each canvassed twice in 2000 in New Hampshire, a state that went for Bush by a margin of 7211, we could have swung not only the state but the entire country for Gore.

In addition, canvassing is important for identification. It points the campaign to potential volunteers, and it allows known supporters and known opponents to be removed from the lists of homes to be visited, freeing later canvassers to focus on the undecided voters.

Canvassing is Good For Me… Oh, Yeah, and For the World, Too

I canvassed in New Hampshire for Dean in 2003 and 2004 and Kerry in 2004, and in Massachusetts for Deval Patrick (for governor) in 2006 and Jamie Eldridge (for U.S. Congress) in 2007. All told, that comes to about 20 times that I’ve canvassed for one candidate or another. Or, to put it another way: I’ve canvassed for myself, with the candidate as a beneficiary. Canvassing is good for my body, mind, and soul. The fact that it’s good for the candidate, and good for society, is a nice side effect. If I were a Buddhist, I would presumably be able to see the candidate, society, and myself as one. But enlightened self-interest does nicely.

We’ve grown used to e-mail blasts, robocalls, and astroturfing, all tools that clone a single voice so that it can appear to come from everywhere. Much like the corporate voices that regretfully tell us that assembly lines in foreign lands are the only way to do business these days, we can almost feel that it’s just not feasible to restrict ourself to speaking to a single person at a time.

But that’s what canvassing is about. It’s inefficient. You spend most of your time walking from house to house. The process can be optimized (by the people who decide where to send you and by the way you traverse the route), but it cannot be mechanized. However, that is a good thing for your cause, because if canvassing could be mechanized, the process would have been bought long ago by the forces with the most money. It’s also a good thing for you. (I’m assuming, by the way, that physical exercise is not a problem for you. If it is, a well-run office will have plenty of other ways for you to help, such as data entry or phone banks.) How often have you indulged yourself in a long walk, or a face-to-face conversation with strangers? It’s a treat to be forced to “regress” to an old-fashioned mode of transportation and communication, to walk the streets and speak to humans face-to-face. It’s particularly valuable to have an excuse to do this somewhere other than in your own neighborhood. When else would you have the opportunity?

Canvass Like You’re Gonna Wanna Do It Again

By this point, if you’ve already decided that you will be canvassing, you may be growing impatient. “All right, already. I’m going. Just tell me how, so I can get it over with.” But my point is that you want to learn how to do it in a sustainable way. You want to be able to look forward to canvassing with anticipation rather than resentment. And that means focusing on the positive, because there will be negatives, though less pronounced than you might think. We’ll get to them soon enough.

In addition to the prospect of a walk through a new neighborhood and connecting with fascinating campaign workers and fellow volunteers, one positive that has always carried me through has been the surprisingly frequent expressions of gratitude that I’ve gotten from people whose doorbells I’ve rung. Some of them are on “my team,” and are naturally glad to see someone putting themselves out for a candidate that they support as well. But some are politically uninformed, and are pleased to have someone bring information to their doorstep.

Say Anything

So what do you say to the person opening the door? Just about anything, as long as it contains “Hi, I’m a volunteer for Candidate X.” The campaign will give you a script beforehand anyway, but will also tell you that you’re free to deviate from it (and I generally do). They will often suggest that you ask the person what’s important to him or her. Posing this question is not just a strategic move, but a service that you are doing on behalf of both the voters and the campaign: you’re helping them hear each other. This is marketing at its best. However, it can come across as weaselly if you don’t feel comfortable asking the question, or if the voter is skeptical. In that case, feel free to simply say briefly what you like most about the candidate. You’re probably not going to have time to launch into anything comprehensive anyway, so the thing that stands out most in your mind is probably the best. In any case, the person behind the door will probably collapse your message into a mental note “Nice person – seems sincere – made the effort to show up – supports Obama – maybe I will, too.” Hence the overwhelming importance of just showing up.

Many doorbells will go unanswered, either because no one’s home (common) or because no one wants to admit to being home (more rare). But you can leave a brochure (“drop lit”), perhaps with a handwritten line, to show you’ve been there. Hopefully, that will register a positive note in the same part of the brain where the face-to-face encounter would be stored.

You Rang?

Of course, there will be plenty of people who do not see your bringing the good news to their doorstep as a service. They view their house as a sanctuary and resent any intrusion, no matter how fleeting. Or they may even support the other candidate. But they will generally register annoyance, not anger.

I’ve found that surprisingly rarely, about once in every two days of canvassing, I run into someone who is memorably nasty. Sometimes, though, there’s a humorous aspect to the encounter, or the incident will provide me with some insight. I remember knocking on a door to tell someone I was a volunteer for Kerry, only to have him tell me “Well, I’m for Bush. Four more years! Four more years!” In this case, I was able to acquire both insight (hmmm, some voters really do think like football fans) and get a chuckle out of the encounter (at the other guy’s expense, of course).

Fighting for the Best Candidate is How I Prove I’m Alive

You may also find people who are disposed to vote for your candidate, but will complain to you about what s/he has done. They may feel shut out of the democratic process, and inclined to boycott the election or vote for another candidate. I will not be surprised if I meet some educated canvassers who are disappointed with Obama over his FISA vote, for instance. My response would probably be along these lines: “I’ll pass that along. I’m disappointed, too, and that’s why I also put time into efforts for improving our electoral system, not just backing a single candidate every four years. But I’ve also decided that in the big picture, I ultimately empower myself by supporting the best candidate. Obama would be a good president, and McCain would be a very bad one.” But even if this does not convince them to vote as I would like, I feel like I’ve made a stride for my mental health as well as theirs. I’ve allowed them to make their voice heard. And I’ve asserted my free will. I’m saying that despite the imperfections of our political system, I am choosing the best I can do at this moment. I am making a positive choice, a commitment.

So this Saturday, I will be treating myself to a day on the streets of New Hampshire. What about you?

Another Diary, Just For Fun

Update: Here’s a diary you might enjoy: Surprise! Canvassing is Not Hard!

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13 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. I'd love to see tips

    on canvassing in general, and canvassing for Obama in specific.

    • Inspirational!


      Nice work!  I love that positive upbeat attitude!

      Canvassing is fun!  It is an exercise in Democracy with the emphasis on exercise!!

      Here's a tip.  Call a friend that you haven't seen in a while.  Someone who shares your values.  Tell him or her that you'd like to get together, and that you'd like to do something together that promotes those shared values.  Then suggest that you take spend a day together, driving to NH and canvassing together.  If time permits, have dinner or a drink together.  

      Even if you're friend laughs or begs off because of time, you will be glad that you reconnected.  If you are able to schedule some time together, even better.

      I turned 50 in October during the 2004 election.  I wanted to celebrate with my friends, but some were spending a lot of time in NH.  So I decided to do a "Birthday Canvass."  Well, before I began to publicize it, I wanted to be sure that I didn't look pathetic and have only 2 or 3 people show up.  So I locked down about five people, figured maybe another five would materialize, and put it in the Dmocratic Dispatch.  Well close to 50 people came!  

      A few years ago someone asked me to review an FAQ on canvassing.  One of the questions was "Is canvassing hard?"  I quickly crossed it out and changed it to "Is canvassing fun?"  It's like life. Life is hard if you make it hard.  Life is fun if you make it fun.

      • I've always loved that line of yours

        about exercise, but couldn't remember it when it came time to write this piece.

        Your tip about connecting with a friend hit home. Back in 2004, I told a friend of my brother-in-law's that I would be canvassing in NH, and she offered to join me. We had a wonderful day. Several years later, in her late forties or early fifties, she died suddenly of a freak brain hemorrhage. I felt very lucky that I had had that day with her. That's a heavy story, and I personally don't subscribe to the advice that people live their lives as though every day might be their last (or their friends' last), but in this case, I just feel fortunate that we were able to spend that time together.

    • honestly

      Here's my thoughts on canvassing, beyond its effectiveness. Anyone can canvass and be successful at it. All it takes is the willingness to do it. Furthermore, there's really not that much training I can do to make people good at it. I can teach them how to effectively ID the voter, I can tell them not to spend too much time at any one door, but beyond that, there's not much else.

      Each person is going to have a different recipe for success in canvassing. It's something that people just have to do - and the more they do it, they better they get at it.  

    • Tips

      Those new to canvassing will probably be paired with an experienced person on their first foray.  So a lot of the tips will be conveyed in the field.  For what it's worth, I have picked up a few techniques from canvassing, gathering signatures, and from door-to-door fundraising for a consumer activist group:

      - Don't wear sunglasses when you are knocking on doors. - Take along breath mints.   - Carry at least two pens in case one runs out.   - Try to walk around people's lawns, using the path or the driveway, instead of across them.  It's a matter of respect. - After you ring the bell or knock, take a step back from the door and look away, so the person inside can check you out and decide whether to open the door without being stared at. - As you are talking to the person, hold your clipboard in a way that lets them see what is on it, especially if you are carrying a stack of volunteer cards or other evidence that will show their neighbors' participation in your cause. - You can't leave political lit on a mailbox.  You will develop skill at putting the lit in a secure spot on or in the door. - In New Hampshire in 2004, we found that very few people used their front doors.  Sometimes it's best to start with the side door.

      It is really fun to work with someone else and develop your system.  When we were covering distances in N.H. and using a car, we had a driver and navigator in the front seats, and the canvassers in the back seat.  I think the navigator also kept the voter list and recorded responses.

      One man at the end of a long road was extremely impressed that we made the effort to ask for his vote.  Even during the primary season, no one had ever bothered to ask for his support.  At a llama farm, our navigator (Margie!) volunteered to go to the door because she had background on llama raising and thought she could establish an immediate rapport with the household.  

      No one has mentioned yet that New Hampshire is also gorgeous.  Bonus if you canvas during fall foliage season.  Canvassing lets you get out and explore picturesque small towns and historic colonial homes.  

      Canvassing is one of the best activities I have found for making you feel like a good American.  Enjoy!

      • Shack, Excellent Concrete Tips, I've added a few thoughts!

        Thanks so much!

        The rule of thumb that I use as to what door to use is, go to the door that looks most used.

        For leaving literature, my suggestion is try to leave it at eye level, with the candidate's name or picture easily visible.

        During Deval's campaign, I explained to people that "I get points" for each voter who signed what we then called "green cards."  People like to be helpful.  It's amazing how many people were willing to sign them.  I stressed that I wanted the signature only if he or she was ready to make the vote, not just get me points.  

        If you and your fellow canvassers agree to buy ice cream for whoever gets the most 1s, you can use something similar.  The competition can make it even more fun.  Sometimes I bring little things, and use them as prizes.  It's amazing how competitive people get.  I brought an address book that I had from a grab at work.  One canvasser took a second route because he wanted to win it for his wife!  

        In general use the "I get points" line only when they are clearly considering the candidate.   One of my favorite memories from the Deval campaign was canvassing with a friend in her own neighborhood where she knew everyone!  After chatting and catching up, she would launch into her pitch.  I would listen and then at the end of her spiel I would say, "Mary would consider it a personal favor if you sign one of these cards saying that you support Deval Patrick."    

        • Did someone say ice cream?

          (I've always liked you, Kate. Now I've added "lover of ice cream" to your list of attributes!)

          Everyone envies the lucky people who get up every day and go to jobs they actually like--the jobs in which they get to do something they consider worthwhile, challenging, intellectually stimulating and fun!

          Maybe canvassing can help satisfy that desire. And the "reward" of a paycheck can be substituted by the reward of ice cream!

          Plan a gathering at the end of the day at a road side stand. And--here's the hook--invite the people you're canvassing! Part of the joy of knocking on those doors and introducing yourself to people is letting them in on the fun. Include them in the festivities. Let them catch and absorb the energy and excitement of the campaign. Invite them to have ice cream with you!

      • A couple other ideas

        -Smile, especially if you disagree.  That leaves a good impression.

        -Wear a button so they know right up front who you are and why they're there.

        -Drive don't want to ring the doorbell of somebody you just cut off.

        I agree on keeping a respectful distance.  If you're in your 20s and over 6 feet tall (like me), it's important to avoid looking threatening.

        I was in one group in Iowa, and we developed a system based on the demographics.  We realized that we each seemed to have more success with certain age groups, genders, and/or affiliations.  So one of us would go talk to a 74-year old man, while another person would get a 34-year old woman.  

        sabutai   @   Tue 4 Dec 7:00 PM
  2. Yes, we'll hit the streets

    Thank you for a great piece, Alan!

    I'll add that canvasing for Obama isn't the only reason to go to NH. Obama will do his best work with a clear 60 vote majority in the Senate and a veto proof majority in the House, and our neighbors to the north can use our help to make the case for sending Jeanne Shaheen and Tom Allen to Washington. An Obama win will help bring along the other Democratic candidates to victory.

    But, let's also come back and work the neighborhoods of MA. As Governor Dukakis often repeats, we can't take any constituency for granted!

    • Good point

      And it's worth remembering that MA volunteers helped free NH from Governor Benson and get John Lynch into the office in 2004, even though helping to turn the state from red to blue fell just short of counteracting what happened elsewhere in the country.

  3. would you consider cross-posting this at Bleeding Heartland?

    I write at the Iowa community blog for progressives:

    I would promote this to the front page if you would be so kind as to cross-post. These are helpful tips.

    I have written a diary with specific advice for Obama volunteers who may run into Democrats who dislike Obama or are resistant to his candidacy:

    Friendly advice: How to talk to non-supporters about Obama

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