Canvassing is All About Showing Up

(This diary is well worth reading--thanks to AlanF for the cross-post. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

I originally posted this diary at Activist Land, Daily Kos, and Blue Mass Group. desmoinesdem was kind enough to ask me to post it here as well. The comments at Daily Kos and Blue Mass Group were very worthwhile. Please also see desmoinedem’s Friendly advice: How to talk to non-supporters about Obama.

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!

Tags: Canvassing

About the Author(s)


  • I would welcome any tips

    on canvassing for Obama and on canvassing in general.

  • The discussion that arose in response to this piece

    on Daily Kos and Blue Mass Group was interesting. When I set out to write it, I wanted to explain that I like canvassing because it lets me put my beliefs into action, because it lets me walk through places I’d never see otherwise, and because it exposes me to friendly people and animals. There are aspects of the canvassing experience that are difficult, especially for someone like me who is not the most confident persuader, but on balance canvassing leaves me feeling good, and it leaves me feeling that I’ve accomplished some good.

    However, I drew responses from people who enjoy the task of persuasion — or perhaps I should say catalyzing the process of getting other people to change their minds. Today, I went canvassing with such a person. So far, I have not been able to cultivate the personality trait that would make me that way, but it certainly is fun to watch others who are thus blessed.

    What about you?

    • I don't have much experience with canvassing

      compared to others. I have heard that the best method of persuasion is to get the other person to say what you are trying to convince them of. I’m not sure how you do that, though!

      My experience is similar to yours in that hostile reactions at the door are very few and far between. It may seem scary before you do it, but in reality most people will be friendly.

      • Another way to look at it

        is that you’re encouraging the other person to reexamine his/her beliefs, but you’re not dictating where they’re going to go. It’s like voter registration: you trust that when you enfranchise more people, the majority of them will tend to vote the way you do — provided you believe in enfranchisement yourself!

        Hillary Rettig, in her Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World without Losing Your Way, stresses that it’s difficult and threatening for people to change, and that you can help via nonjudgmental and open-ended dialogue. She retells a wonderful story about a pig farmer who is confrontational towards an animal activist, accusing him of trying to make life difficult for him. However, the activist takes it as calmly as he can and simply listens to the farmer. As time goes on, the farmer comes to realize that his way of making a living is at odds with his feelings for the pigs, particularly the feelings he suppressed when, as a child, his father forced him to kill his pet pig. He remains in touch with the activist over the years, and finally he tells him that he’s given up the hog farming altogether and become an organic gardener. This was an outcome that the activist could never have predicted and would never have set out to try to accomplish.

        Now, that conversion was a process that took years, initiated by a conversation that took hours. In canvassing, we’re talking about an exchange at someone’s door that can last for only minutes or even seconds. But the point is the same: You relinquish the attempt to control in favor of the effort to ask and listen.

        The guy who was canvassing with me today was telling me that he has been able to maintain people’s interest in hearing another point of view to the point where even when he offers to just hand them a piece of paper and walk away, they choose to hear him out instead.

        Another friend of mine would say that she feels her purpose is to provide a service to the potential voter: she gives them information and the means to find more, but she lets them come to their own conclusions.

        I have a deep-rooted fear of imposition, so my instinct is to feel that the kindest thing I can do to anyone is not waste their time. I’m sure that some of the people whom I talk to can sense this, and as a result they try to cut off the conversation when they might have remained engaged with someone else. Still, I think that people can read that I am interested in hearing what they have to say, so there are people who will take a few seconds with me that they wouldn’t take if I were being more confrontational.

        From reading your diary about speaking with non-Obama-supporters, it sounds like you already know how to put aside judgmentalism.

        • it's amazing how much can be accomplished

          when you truly listen to people and respond to what they have said.

          That goes a long way toward gaining their respect. People can tell when you are just repeating talking points from a script as opposed to having a conversation.

          My parents canceled out each other’s votes in almost every election, so I grew up with a lot of lively political disagreements in the home. I feel this gives me an advantage in speaking to people who have other points of view, compared to someone who grew up in a 100 percent bleeding heart liberal family.