The 2014 Iowa ground game: 12 Canvassing dos and don'ts

First in a series of posts on GOTV in Iowa this year

Air time for television advertising has become the most expensive line-item in many election campaigns. Outside groups have spent millions of dollars already on Iowa commercials targeting U.S. Senate candidates Bruce Braley and Joni Ernst, with millions more to be spent over the next 60 days. Nevertheless, I don’t know many people who believe attack ads will determine the outcome of close races like Iowa’s U.S. Senate battle. Barring some extraordinary campaign event (such as a meltdown in the debates), the winner will be the candidate whose side does a better job of identifying its supporters and turning them out to vote.

The number of Iowans who voted in each of the last two midterm elections was about a third lower than the number who had voted in the most recent presidential election. If that trend holds, approximately 1.1 million Iowans will cast ballots in the 2014 general election. Braley and other Democrats can’t afford to have turnout resemble 2010, when only 56.5 percent of registered Iowa Democrats voted, as opposed to 69 percent of registered Republicans.

The Iowa Democratic Party has been crowing about its bigger and better “coordinated campaign,” an effort to build on the successful 2012 early voting program here. No question, Democrats got a big jump on the ground game while the Iowa GOP was mired in poor fundraising and a messy leadership transition. Democrats have had canvassers out every weekend for months, and so far have generated many more absentee ballot requests than Republicans. The Iowa GOP has stepped up its door-knocking over the past several weeks, and Governor Terry Branstad will spend part of his war chest to assist the early voting efforts.

Knocking on doors is one of the most valuable ways to volunteer for a campaign. For those willing to spend a few hours on a weeknight or a weekend afternoon, I’ve enclosed my best advice for canvassing after the jump. Please feel free to share your own experiences with canvassing (on either side of the door) in this thread. Six years ago, a guest diarist posted his top tips here.

Before you go out

DO dress appropriately. Comfortable clothing and shoes are essential. You may walk several miles, and you don’t want to get blisters. There’s no need to dress up for canvassing; almost any casual clothing is fine (avoid beat-up clothes with holes or stains). Many people like to wear t-shirts promoting the candidate they’re promoting. I prefer to wear neutral clothing, such as a t-shirt featuring the Iowa flag.

DON’T wear sunglasses. Wearing sunglasses outdoors is important on a bright day, but I make an exception in this case. You are asking people to open their doors to a stranger. If people can’t make eye contact with you, they are less likely to want to talk to you.

DON’T plan to knock on doors during an Iowa or Iowa State football game. No further explanation needed.

As you approach addresses on your list

DO take note of anything distinctive about the home or yard. Commenting on the garden or front porch decorations can be a good ice-breaker. In my experience, people don’t mind being asked what kind of flower/shrub is that, or what breed of dog came up to the door with them. If you don’t feel comfortable asking questions, just make a simple observation such as, “That’s a nice harvest wreath,” or “Looks like your flowers love all the rain we’ve been having,” or “Your work in the garden really paid off this year.”

DON’T walk on people’s lawns. It seems like it would save so much time to cut through a yard to get to the next house, but don’t do it. Most people don’t care to have strangers walking on their property and trampling their grass. Even if you think the homeowner is away (because no one answered the door), neighbors might see you cutting across the yard, and that leaves them with a bad impression of you and your candidate. Take the extra minute or two to walk down the path and the driveway. Then use the sidewalk or street to reach the next home’s driveway and front path.

At the door

DO introduce yourself. First name only is fine if you don’t feel comfortable giving your whole name. If you’re canvassing your own neighborhood or a precinct not far away, it can be helpful to mention that you live nearby and are helping out your local Democrats. If people have a yard decoration supporting your high school, it doesn’t hurt to mention that you went there too.

DON’T read or recite from memory the script your field organizer gave you. You will sound canned and fake. Besides, you have no idea whether the person at the door shares your priorities. I prefer to ask the person if they’ve been following the elections. If not, can I leave them some information about candidates A, B, C, and D? If the person is following the campaigns, I ask an open-ended question about what’s important to them or how they think it’s going. You never know what issue will motivate someone.

DO be prepared to answer basic questions about the candidates you are supporting. You don’t need to know their life story or stance on every issue, but you should be able to tell the person at the door a little about their background and priorities.

DON’T argue with people. Canvassing is mostly about identifying supporters, not trying to persuade non-supporters. Rarely is the person who comes to the door openly hostile to your candidate/s, but it can happen, especially if the previous owner moved. Just say thanks and go on your way. Sometimes I’ve found it breaks the tension to smile and say, “Oh wow, I’m really barking up the wrong tree here! Sorry about that. Have a good day.”

DO give strong supporters good reasons to vote early. Banking early votes helps campaigns in several ways, but a lot of reliable voters prefer the experience of going to the polls on the first Tuesday in November. They won’t be motivated to request an absentee ballot in order to help shrink the Braley campaign’s universe of voter contacts. I prefer to tell people the reasons that I like to vote early, namely:

1. Once my ballot is cast, I don’t have to worry about what might happen if I get sick or have a sick child on election day;

2. When I vote early, I have time to research what to do about any obscure races or ballot initiatives. I can ask around about the people running for Polk County soil and water conservation commissioner, or Broadlawns Hospital trustee. Otherwise you get in the voting booth and think, who the heck are these people?

3. After campaigns can see that you’ve returned your ballot, you don’t get as many election-related phone calls.

If someone insists that s/he likes to vote on election day, don’t badger the person about it. Arguing with someone who’s already on your side doesn’t help your candidate. Thank her/him for the support, and go on your way.

If no one’s home

DO leave campaign brochures or “cowboy cards” hanging on the doorknob or by the front door, unless your field organizer says you are running short on lit.

DON’T put any campaign literature in a mailbox or through a mail slot. That’s a federal crime.

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  • One addition

    Don’t go in the house…not because you’re likely to encounter a serial killer, but because it will slow you down making contacts. And this is very hard because I’ve encountered many an elderly person who is lonely who will see you as a potential companion, someone who could sit and have tea or coffee. Twice I went inside with elderly women, because I could see how lonely they were and then struggled to politely leave. I learned to show them the list of contacts I had to make and apologize for not being able to stop and chat longer. It’s the hardest thing for me when canvassing!

    • good point

      One of the longest conversations I got drawn into was with an older man who wasn’t even on my contact list. He was doing yard work, saw that I was stopping at houses on his street, and asked me what I was up to. Long detour ensued. I heard about how he’s lived in the neighborhood for 47 years, and Windsor Heights has increased property taxes three or four times, but he’s not sure why, because when he looks around he doesn’t see anything new that’s been built, and so on…  

  • Wayy back in an earlier lifetime

    I had Maggie Tinsman ream me a new you-know-what on my own front porch. It was the year she first ran for State Senate and she was still a Scott Supervisor.

    Although I was a Democrat I had been voting for the incumbent Repub, a nice old guy, whose name escapes me now, from either Mt Joy or Eldridge. I liked the old guy. Anyway Maggie had primaried him and beat him. The old guy, to my memory now had done nothing wrong but she had thought it was her turn and wanted to raise the quality of the entries on her resume. The old guy was personally hurt and did take it very personally.

    So anyway that fall when Maggie came a-knocking I told her that I wouldn’t be voting for her and why.


    I must have triggered a cactus she may have been sitting on because she got really angry and let me have what-for.

    Can’t recall any details this long after but I do know that the sting of a butt-chewing on my own front porch stayed with me for Tinsmans entire time in the senate and apparently even to this day, since your article managed to so easily evoke the memory.

    (Hmm, Ed Holden Mebbe?)

    • Wow

      I am really surprised that happened. I don’t know her personally, but that is not how I imagine Maggie Tinsman talking with a potential constituent.

      • Giminy, that has to be more than 30 years ago

        That’s how I remember it but in all fairness, note that I really don’t remember specifically what or how I said that triggered her anger. Heck, who knows what kind of jerky thing I might have said.

        Politically a slip up for her you’re right, but looking at the grand scheme of things she did go on to a long career in the Senate despite never getting my vote.