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[cross-posted from Activist Land and Blue Mass Group]

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!

Originally posted to AlanF on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 04:24 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Isn't it a joy? (7+ / 0-)

    This is one of my favorite things in the world to do, what part of NH are you in? Leaving a handwritten note is a GREAT idea, wish I'd thought of it!

    Forget the script... you look like a fool reading/reciting something that you obviously didn't write, especially if it's your first time. Everyone has a different style. Your goal should not be to change the voter's mind, but rather to create a good memory (as you say). A short, pleasant visit with a laugh or two is worth more than a $10 million commercial on the nightly news.

    "He's patriotic in sincere ways, and not in photo-op ways." - jenontheshore

    by Ivey476 on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 04:32:08 PM PDT

  •  Dogs, don't like them, even the little ones (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlanF, webranding

    when it comes to doorbelling. I always scope out the yard in question if there's a fence, and I leave the gate slightly ajar in case I need to make a hasty retreat, which I've needed to do.

  •  Then there's the basic stuff (7+ / 0-)

    Wear very comfortable shoes, dress for the weather, make sure your map is easily accessible and your literature sorted in a way that makes it easiest for you to handle. Bring water, or have some in the car, and--just like with blogging--bring a thick skin. Having a door shut in your face isn't a reflection on you at all. Sure it's discouraing, but not the end of the world.

    "There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty." - John Adams.

    by Joan McCarter on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 04:35:33 PM PDT

  •  I tend to not use the script, simply because (6+ / 0-)

    if I do, I feel uncomfortable and nonconvincing.

    I always explain I am with the Obama campaign.  During the primary, we would ring the doorbell, then if they are planning to vote.  If so, you ask if they've chosen a candidate, if they haven't you ask if they'd be interested in talking about Barack or reading the lit we brought along.

    If they were for a different candidate and they didn't mind saying who, we would tally that, smiled and told them to have a nice day.

    We then asked if they knew where their polling place was, then asked if they were interested in volunteering for Barack.

    I had a great experience (minus the freezing WI temperatures) you just have to get used to some people being unwilling to talk, and perhaps even a few cases of racist remarks (I regret that I had a couple horrible words thrown at me) but overall, I found that people are receptive and genuinely looking for information to make up their minds.

    I look forward to canvassing for Barack again soon!

    The McCain campaign's new slogan: Get that IL Senator off my lawn!

    by krwlngwthyou on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 04:36:04 PM PDT

  •  here's a question for fellow canvassers: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlanF, rhfactor, AussieJo

    do you canvass alone, or with a partner?

    I know some people feel more comfortable working in pairs.

    What I have found works best is have 2 people, 1 working each side of the street.  That way, you have someone near by if you need the help, but, you aren't overwhelming the person at home with 2 people at their door.

    The McCain campaign's new slogan: Get that IL Senator off my lawn!

    by krwlngwthyou on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 04:40:16 PM PDT

    •  What do you mean by "if you need the help"? (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      democrattotheend, rhfactor, AussieJo

      If someone's across the street, wouldn't it be awkward to summon him or her?

      I'm glad you brought up this question -- I wonder about the "single or in pairs" question every time. Not sure I've decided which is my favorite.

      Just in terms of fun, I like going with someone else. Perhaps the best time was when I canvassed with a (very liberal) nun. But I don't know whether the team approach helps, or whether having two faces at the door simply intimidates people.

      John McCain: no health insurance for kids.

      by AlanF on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 04:47:11 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I've mostly done it alone (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AlanF, AussieJo

      I am a precinct captain, and it's really hard to get help. It's work, but I do know a lot of the people who live here.

      But I have also gone in tandem in other areas I don't know well, it's way more fun, someone to talk to. And it gets more women involved who may feel intimidated to go out alone.

    •  I've done it different ways (0+ / 0-)

      I've done it with a partner, often training someone new.  We go to a few houses together until they are comfortable doing it on their own.  I haven't found people to be intimidated by 2 people at the door. Opposite sides of the street don't always work well, especially once we had targeted lists where there might be one or 0 on one side and a ton of houses on the other.  So I gave up on that idea and really wish the campaign hadn't given us the odd and even sheets since it ended up not working all that well.  It's just as easy to zig zag back and forth in a small town.  I think a big city would be much different, though.

      I've done it with an experienced partner where we've split up the neighborhood and had walkie talkies or cell phone contact with each other periodically.

      I've done it alone in small town low-income neighborhoods during daytime hours.  I have run into people who are obviously partaking of mind-altering substances but haven't ever felt I was in a dangerous situation.  I am used to going alone to homes as a home health worker and do have my antenna out from that training for dangerous situations.  But so far, I have never felt uncomfortable with anything I've encountered. I am a welcome sight, being an Obama supporter with my shirt and buttons in the neighborhoods I'm going into.  

      I love canvassing, I love the conversations, and I feel we are doing a real public service.  I've educated young people who aren't even sure what the parties represent, helped people with disabilities get registered who probably would not have otherwise, and given out many forms to former felons so they can get their voting rights restored (this is an issue in KY).  Many of the former felons had no idea they could vote again.  

      I have found that almost everyone respects what I am doing and many are very, very appreciative, especially the former felons--who have said "God bless you!" more than once.  Even people who don't support Obama usually respect that someone is willing to go out and do this kind of work as a citizen.    

  •  Apartments and condos are tough to get into (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlanF, AussieJo

    sometimes. You can wait for someone to leave the building, that usually works, or ring a couple of units to see if they will buzz you in. Sometimes you just have to pass them up.

  •  I am from there (4+ / 0-)

    NH that is, grad high school and college from there, and people get really sick of the whole political assault of the primaries...They're still tired of it when the general comes. So when I canvass there, I always just chat first and try to connect with them...and play it pretty mellow because, as my mom-in-law says, "it wears on them." She asked me not to canvass until September because she thought I'd have a better shot at reaching folks then...I canvassed there in primaries and got some people who'd had three other campaigns show up before me! They were grumpy...

    Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

    by Lindahyattyoung on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 04:45:43 PM PDT

    •  I wondered about that. (0+ / 0-)

      The idea of starting early is that it helps find volunteers who will then be ready to go when September comes around. Does your mother-in-law think that people ever are less inclined to vote as a result of being canvassed starting from the summer?

      John McCain: no health insurance for kids.

      by AlanF on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 04:49:38 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't think so (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AlanF, AussieJo, krwlngwthyou

        She just thinks they get a bit annoyed...and that could, feasibly, rub off on a candidate...but like I said, if you play it mellow...it will be fine...just don't jump right in...ask about their summer, etc...(not to be manipulative but just to be friendly!) I also find it helps if I say something like "I know you are being inundated here with a bunch of political campaigns, but I care so much about mine that I thought I'd get started early or ... I'm out here on this cold day ... or ...

        A weird aside: I always thought the live free or die slogan was kind of ridiculous until Bush & Co. And then I got it. It wasn't just background noise anymore.

        Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

        by Lindahyattyoung on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 04:54:27 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  I experienced that in NH (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AlanF

      When I canvassed for Dean there. I am sympathetic to some degree...there were 8 candidates running, and they all hit each house several times. Sometimes I would say that I was sympathetic but I was from out of state and would kill to be able to vote in the NH primary and get all that attention. Not sure if it was the right thing to say or not.

    •  Some guy in NH (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AlanF

      yelled at me because the Lieberman people wouldn't stop calling him.  Being from the Dean folks, I really had no control over that.  

      I left him alone.

      Ya gotta laugh when something like that happens.  It's just not your fault, and there's nothing you can do. Ya can't take it personally.

  •  I recomend bringing a bag (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlanF, AussieJo, krwlngwthyou

    something that goes over the shoulder and can carry your lit, extra pens (always have more then one pen) and some water.  If you have a camelback, bring it, especially in a dry climate or in a lot of heat.  If someone asks you a question, and you don't know the answer, make a note of it, look it up when you get back to the office, and call them back with the answer.  Even if they don't like the answer, they will appreciate that you did not forget their question.

    Remember to learn the codes on the walk sheet, and write neatly, which I know can be tricky with a clipboard.  I've done a lot of data entry for campaigns, and it gets very frustrating when people make up their own codes, and we don't know what they mean.  I once volunteered for a campaign where many people mistook "DC" for disconnected, and it meant deceased.  Caused a lot of trouble with date entry, luckily we cought the mistake.

    •  Bring your own clipboard if you have one (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AlanF, AussieJo

      Sometimes the campaigns don't have enough.

    •  In my bag I carry (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AlanF, Donkey Hotey

      campaign literature, stickers if I have any, extra pens, voter registration cards, folders with various other things:  KY reinstatement of voting rights forms for former felons, a state Voter Information Guide for questions about absentee ballots etc.,some Obama Issues booklets (you can download the economic policy issue booklet and put it in a cheap folder).  In the primary, the campaign gave us some of these booklets on his economic plan.  I like to have some of the website pages on Iraq, Autism, Disabilities, & Economy in a folder.  That way if someone asks what his plans are for the economy, or think Obama is too vague you can whip something out and read anything in there and it will sound good.  Then point out this is all available on his website.  If they want a copy and don't have internet access, I offer to bring a copy back later if I don't have any extras.  This doesn't happen very often.  

      I also tie one pen to the clipboard with a string.  I use the gel ink pens that glide and write very easily and with bold ink so it helps with legibility.  Carrying a clipboard and a bag makes you look like a census worker more than a salesperson, so that helps.  An Obama t-shirt is very helpful as it identifies you quickly from a further distance than a button will.  People particularly like "Obamamama" and that is a conversation starter. works if you're mom, at least. They also particularly like the Obama pins that have pictures of the Obama family if they are Obama supporters.

      For the bag itself, lately you can get cheap woven bags for $1 at the grocery stores or wal-mart.  

  •  Studies show canvassing to be very effective at (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlanF

    getting votes.

    I started canvassing in '72.

    FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 05:38:58 PM PDT

  •  I love to canvass (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlanF

    But I don't do persuasion. I collect the info for the campaign and provide voters with whatever info they want.

  •  Canvassing is the core of (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlanF

    Anna's campaign. The campaign is just over 2,000 doors knocked so far this campaign. It is amazing the connection you get - the only thing more effective than the canvassers is the candidate her (or him) self. Can't tell you how may "I've lived in this house --- years and no candidate has ever knocked on my door. I'll vote for you." we have heard.

    I'll walk 100 miles knocking on doors for my Dem candidate - Anna Lord for Colo HD21 - will you?

    by tjlord on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 07:35:35 PM PDT

    •  Take another look at the link in your text. (0+ / 0-)

      It's off. But the link in your sig line works.

      Are you related to her, by any chance? Your username suggests you are.

      Good luck!

      John McCain: no health insurance for kids.

      by AlanF on Sun Jul 13, 2008 at 08:01:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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