First time canvassing -- what do I need to know?
October 22, 2008 5:13 PM   Subscribe

I seem to have been volunteered to canvass for a political candidate. What do I need to know?

I'm a fairly extroverted person, so I don't really have any objections to knocking on strangers' doors, but I'd appreciate any stories or advice (from whichever party or country you may happen to work for/reside in), just so I can get a better idea of what to expect. I've never done anything quite like this before.
posted by oostevo to Law & Government (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This thread might be relevant to your interests.
My advice is—and this goes double if you're male and tall, as I am—don't stand close to the door when it opens. Lots of people, especially the eldery and women living alone, don't like it when they open the door and find someone big and threatening there. Stand back, if possible on a lower step, and smile! People are really nice.
For stories, I'm not sure anyone can beat this one (four paragraphs down).
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:30 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

My mother did this for Obama a twice in the past couple of weeks. She said that people were mostly polite and listened to what she had to say and, with the exception of a few people, planned to vote for the candidate for whom she was canvassing. This makes sense though, as the list was culled from a voter registration database. The only people who were hostile or unpleasant were those who were renting from an owner registered democrat, however they (the tenant) were registered otherwise and/or passionate about voting for the other guy.

After the second time (Monday night), she said she'd never do it again. She didn't like interrupting people while they were eating dinner or having family time. She started feeling like her visit to their doorstep was no less intrusive than a religious missionary.
posted by necessitas at 5:34 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

No practical tips (I suck at canvassing) but perhaps some inspiration from FiveThirtyEight's canvassing reports:

We tagged along with a canvasser on each side here in town. We got into town around 4, which was too late to spend much time with the McCain canvasser (they were closing shop but made a kind extra effort for us). While we were with the Obama canvasser, he knocked on a door where the voter wasn't home -- and was apparently a Republican -- but by chance the daughter and her husband were home, were both Obama supporters, registered to vote and requested mail-in ballots. She was a teacher, and she took a handful of forms to register her students. That teacher may not have taken the initiative to register to vote, or she might have. The point is that by fanning out into the field and putting in the work, campaigns find voters who wouldn't have otherwise voted.

Or, if anecdotes aren't your thing, some cold, hard statistics on the efficacy of door-knocking:

Twelve to one.

For every twelve voters who you talk to at their doors, one voter goes and votes who would not otherwise have voted. If you're asking: "how can I be most effective in helping my candidate win the election?" then an organizer's answer is going to be: knock on doors.

In a Yale study by Donald Green and Alan Gerber on the effects of doorknocking in local elections, they concluded that a conservative estimate was that "12 successful face-to-face contacts translated into one additional vote."
This figure, moreover, is a conservative estimate. When calculating the effects of actual treatment, we regarded any conversation with a member of the household as a "contact." Only about half of these conversations occurred directly with a subject in the treatment group; the remainder involved urging a housemate to vote and requesting that this message be passed along to the intended subject. Had we restricted the definition of contact to direct conversations with the subject, the apparent effects of canvassing would have been much greater.
Although the study aimed at local elections, the principle is sound. Face-to-face contact is the single most important effort a volunteer can contribute to his or her candidate.

Based on that, I'd recommend keeping tabs on exactly how many people you've talked to to get a rough idea of how many extra votes you've generated. It would be a great motivator.
posted by Rhaomi at 5:54 PM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

My sense, having done this once so far this time around and a couple of times for Kerry, is this:

1. There's a big difference between canvassing undecideds and doing get out the vote canvassing. Get out the vote canvassing sometimes involves going to somewhat scary neighborhoods, but everyone is friendly and generally glad to see you. If you're canvassing undecideds, expect some hostility. Some supposed undecideds just don't want to reveal to phone survey people that they think your guy is the scum of the earth and are voting for the other guy.

2. There's a big difference between canvassing in traditional swing states and canvassing in places that have only recently been declared in play. People in Ohio and Pennsylvania have been harassed by both campaigns for the past six months. They are bored sick of it. They think you're an asshole. People in Indiana and North Carolina have never seen a canvasser in their lives before last week. They think you're awesome, or if not awesome, at least a novel annoyance. Expect some hostility if you're canvassing in a traditional battleground state. Expect less if you're in one of the new ones.

The Obama campaign seems to be doing this all much better than the Kerry campaign did, so you'll probably be doing more targeted canvassing. That's a good thing. Also, being friendly and smiling goes pretty far.
posted by craichead at 5:56 PM on October 22, 2008

Don't take it personally if people aren't nice to you, or don't like your candidate.
posted by at 6:12 PM on October 22, 2008

I've done a lot of canvassing and am currently a precinct organizer. Some practical tips - wear comfy shoes, bring a water bottle and a cell phone. Definitely don't take it personally if people are unfriendly or disagree with you. Face to face contact is the key - one can be most effective if you really know your stuff and are friendly and polite.

Hopefully whoever cuts turf for you lays out a sensible map so that you can walk the territory efficiently. Take time to glance at the sheet before you go out so you know the codes and the script. and have fun!
posted by leslies at 7:23 PM on October 22, 2008

Canvassing is much more meaningful for more local candidates, such as Congress, state legislatures. For the local races - judges, city or county commissions, township board members - the candidate should do the knocking.
posted by yclipse at 7:29 PM on October 22, 2008

If there is a sign that says, "No soliciting", even though that's not what you're doing, please don't knock on the door.
posted by j at 7:53 PM on October 22, 2008

Read this comment. Doesn't matter what party/organization you're working with, it's still really good advice.
posted by niles at 8:00 PM on October 22, 2008

I absolutely hate having anyone I don't know knock on my door. I regard it as a serious intrusion into my privacy and tranquility, and it pisses me off to no end. Having said that ...

Whenever I have been personally approached by a political candidate, such as through door-to-door canvassing (I don't care who they are) they get a significant boost in my estimation because they took the time --- and took me seriously enough as a voter --- to get out and ask for my vote. It really impresses me that a candidate cares enough to come to my door to talk to me (even if the intrusion pisses me off). So, even if you piss someone off or have some uncomfortable encounters, keep in mind that you may still be persuading people to vote for your candidate.
posted by jayder at 8:16 PM on October 22, 2008

1) Good, sensible shoes. Wear cotton socks if its hot and wool or wool/cotton blends if its cool. Many experienced canvassers keep extra socks in their bag so they can change if their feet get damp.

2) Wear layers. Be sure to bring a hat, scarf, and gloves. SUNSCREEN - even if its a fall day in snow country.

3) Remember you'll be walking (albeit slowly and with stops) -- if possible bring a small pack or messenger bag and keep a couple bottles of water and a couple of snacks in there. Also some gum or hard candies ... your mouth can get dry with a combo of cold weather and talking a lot.

4) Bring a flashlight if you'll be canvassing in the late afternoon, even if you don't think you'll need it.

5) If they give you a clipboard, run down to your local office supply store and pick up some sheet protectors. They're pretty cheap -- the trick is that rather than sliding your paperwork into them (they way they're supposed to be used) you just put a clear one on top of your clipboard to protect it.

6) Invest in a stuffable rain poncho (available at any army/navy store) or at least a good rain hat.

7) Bring eight or nine pens. Weird thing happen with pens. Also, baby wipes and maybe some hand sanitizer. Sometimes you touch weird stuff or get ... stuff ... on your shoes and you want to take it off.

8) Always -- ALWAYS -- be respectful and polite. Smile. Be friendly. Be willing to offer counter-examples but never argue. Know the facts that are useful to muster your case. If you don't know, don't guess -- be willing to say "I don't know" but then also ask if you can contact the person to get them their answer.

9) Read up on the voter registration laws and voting proceedures in your locality before you go out. People will ask you some crazy questions.

10) Enjoy this!! Taking part in a field canvass is grassroots community organizing at its most basic level. This, my friend, is what democracy is all about -- neighbors talking to neighbors about issues. Yes, its hard and you might be tired or cold, but never let them see that. Just enjoy every encounter -- even the bad ones.
posted by anastasiav at 9:18 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you are in a cold area right now, you will presumably be bundling up for this canvassing. When dressing to go out in the field, try to wear more layers and fewer bulky items (i.e. A long john shirt, a long sleeve t-shirt and a fall jacket instead of a large, puffy jacket). This will make you appear smaller and less threatening. Avoid wearing black or dark colors. Again, dark colors can make you look threatening. If you are wearing a hood or a large hat, remove it before the voter answers their door. Stand at least 6 inches back for their door, and if they are looking through a window or a screen door, be sure to smile and wave. Make the smile and wave as goofy and awkward as possible.

Especially if you are large and/or a man, your biggest obstacle will be getting people to open the door for long enough to engage them. You need to be as disarming as you possibly can be.

Once you're actually talking to a potential voter, use assumptive language. If you are trying to get volunteers, don't say, "So, we're trying to get volunteers. Could you maybe, sort of, kind of, possibly spare a couple of minutes to work phones for us?" Instead, you should say, "Great! Thank you for supporting [X] in this important election! All of X's supporters in the neighborhood are volunteering [Y] hours of their time in the next couple of days before the election. We have all sorts of ways to get involved. So, what days/times could I pencil you in for?"

Avoid asking "So, will you vote for [X]?". Instead, say "So, we can count on your support for [X] on election day, right?" - It's technically a more aggressive questions, but people feel like being asked who they will vote for is a personal and off-limits question, but being asked for support is fine.
posted by cheerwine at 9:19 PM on October 22, 2008

If you are flyering, remember fliers cannot go inside mailboxes. You can shove them around mailboxes, but opening them is a legal no-no (this is what I was told from a local election.)
posted by cobaltnine at 8:09 AM on October 23, 2008

LISTEN! Listen, listen, listen. I found when I began canvassing undecideds and unknowns that I was terribly obsessed with what to say. I boned up on the facts, stuffed my brain with legislation and information and talking points. But within the first few hours of canvassing I realized that people who are willing to give you their time aren't that interested in you delivering a live commercial on their doorstep. If they said they were undecided, then right after introducing myself I went to the question "What's on your mind during this election season? Any issues that you're really concerned with?" This lets them drive the conversation, but also tells you exactly where their interests lie (and as Obama said in Dreams From My Father, when organizing, you have to look for people's self interest). Depending on whether they say "Economy," "war," "energy," etc., you can go into that area and talk about one or two things your candidate has done or plans to do in that area.

OFten when asked what issues concern them, a person will say "I don't really know...everything..." or something vague like that. In those cases, I offer something of myself: "Yeah, there's a lot to be concerned about and it's hard to know what to put first. Personally, I'm supporting Obama because his economic policies are a lot more likely to help people like me in the middle class. For the last eight years we've seen an economy that really favors the wealthy and big business owners at the expense of regular people. Under his plan, middle-class Americans would receive tax credits and tax cuts. He believes that putting more money in the pockets of the middle and working classes will get the economy going again and make us more able to pay for kids' college, buy a house, and start small businesses...." Just a few personal things that make you want to support him. People seem more willing to engage with you when you offer your own views on things.

As to the person who noted that their mother felt she was being terribly invasive - I completely understand that feeling. And I personally HATE calling and phonebanking. However, I am gritting my teeth and forcing myself to do it. Why? For the reasons Rhaomi notes - it's much, much more effective than any other tactic a campaign can employ. Yes, there are people who act bothered and peeved that you are on their step or their phone line. And I'm one of those that will brazenly pretend I'm not home sometimes when a stranger is at the door. But you have to shrug it off. The truth is, those people are in the minority. The fact that someone ignores you, shuts you down fast, or is rude to you just means you have more time to move on to the next gettable vote. It's definitely a weird thing to do, but this election is so damn serious that I'm willing to override my significant personal discomfort to do whatever it takes to get the job done. It's not all about me and my sensitivity to personal interaction - it's bigger than that, and it means learning to shrug off the small number of gruff encounters. The truth is that more often than not, people are at least polite, and at most, effusive, warm, and genuine in their interactions with you. You usually walk away feeling pretty good about what you did.
posted by Miko at 9:07 AM on October 23, 2008

Take my advice with a hefty pinch of salt (not being familiar with American voters), but I'm a member of Ireland's most unpopular (and soon-to-be defunct, so you'd better hope your milage does vary) party so what I say might have some relevance to you if you end up canvassing undecideds, where you're bound to meet some hostile people. Obviously plenty of people will disagree with these, but they're what I've found to work best.

1) Never argue – as obvious as it might seem right now, on the doorstep it's very difficult not to be drawn into an argument with someone who has funny ideas about your candidate. But arguing will almost always just solidify their position in their own heads, and most importantly, waste your own time. Which leads me to...

2) Maximising your "knock rate" is crucial. Don't get bogged down answering questions – the more scrupulous a voter is, the less likely they are to be convinced at a doorstep in the first place. Your best bets are the people who have only a vague interest in politics – those people who will vote, but don't follow it on a day-to-day basis. These are the best people to target because you will be making up a much greater proportion of their campaign exposure than people who are involved, and you can very quickly hit a lot of houses. If someone is asking you more than one question, evade it and thank them for their time – don't waste your own, because in the end it's only one vote.

3) If someone has a local problem, take their details and promise to get back to them about it. Even if it's only a letter from their local party representative, it can really solidify a wavering voter by showing them a more helpful side to politicians than they usually see.

4) Keep it local. This doesn't have to mean taking about speed bumps, but try to avoid talking about policies in broad, national terms except for something that has to be (like, I suppose, national security). This means framing an education policy in terms of how the local school will be affected, etc. As an earlier poster said, the best way to win a vote is by making the voter understand what they'll gain from it – framing national issues in a local context is the best way to do that.

5) If someone seems persuaded, don't be afraid to ask them for their vote. This was something that initially really troubled me – I'd feel so awkward about ending a conversation that I'd be happy with a simple "I hope you consider us!". When I actually came out and asked people to pledge that they'd vote for my candidate, surprisingly often they would – if they have a positive impression of your candidate, putting them on the spot really helps to seal the deal. No doubt a lot of that is just telling someone what they want to hear, but most people put more stock in keeping their word than you might think.

Just my two cents (and my first Metafilter posting, hurrah!).
posted by SamuelBowman at 1:43 PM on October 23, 2008

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