Political canvassing or door knocking is when someone comes to your door to talk to you about politics. The canvasser may just be doing a survey, or they may want your signature on a petition or a vote in a coming campaign.
You may think political canvassing is awesome. And if so, you are right! It’s been around since the Roman Republic. Research shows it is the best way to get votes. Winning candidates all over the country canvass to persuade voters and get them to the polls.
Or you may think canvassing is strange and annoying: The conversations feel awkward and uncomfortable; it’s intrusive that the canvasser knows who you are and where you live; and sharing your political opinions with a stranger at your door is not on your to do list.
But canvassing is important for candidates–and for all who support democracy.
Canvassing works, which is why candidates in contested races do it.
From the outside, campaigns look like a lot of email fundraising, Facebook and Instagram posts, and advertising, direct mail, fancy donor dinners, yard signs and bumper stickers, speeches, debates, and polls. While those things are important, politicians who have won tough, contested races will tell you that field teams (canvassers) are by far the most important part of a campaign.
Study after study has shown that canvassing works. An article in Vox titled, Experiments show this is the best way to win campaigns. But is anyone actually doing it?, details some of the research about canvassing. Google the topic and you’ll see decades of research supporting this.
And right now a hoard of political canvassers have descended on Iowa. They are knocking on doors and making phone calls trying to get as many voters to commit to caucus for their Democratic presidential candidate as they can. This Marie Claire article gives a day in the life of a couple of this year’s Iowa canvassers: What It’s Like to Be a Presidential Campaign Field Organizer.
A strong local example of how canvassing works is Steve Berch, State Representative from District 15 in Boise. He canvassed and canvassed and canvassed his way to victory. When he won his fifth race, he had knocked on over 20,000 (!!!) doors and was the only Democrat to win in his district.
Former Representative Mat Erpelding, Representative Melissa Wintrow, and Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo, speaking on a panel together last summer, told great stories about canvassing and pressed prospective candidates to build their field teams early. Erpelding advised candidates to just put up a quick and inexpensive website and then focus on their field teams.
Canvassing has been shown to work, and winning candidates at all levels of government do it. Political canvassing also strengthens democracy.
Talking to our neighbors about our values is a good thing.
The right to govern ourselves seems like a pretty obvious idea, but democracy is relatively rare. Our right to get together and make decisions about who will govern us –to put it simply — is a pretty big deal.
It can be distasteful to talk about politics. In many cases, the political is personal. For example, if you are canvassing for a candidate that says all immigrants from Mexico are criminals, that is very personal for someone who has immigrated from Mexico or someone who has family who immigrated from Mexico, or for someone who knows or works with someone who has immigrated from Mexico, or for any decent person who thinks people should be treated with respect. So, it can be hard to have conversations around this candidate without things getting awkward (at best).
But we can’t have it both ways. If we value our right to collectively pick the people who govern us we have to stop refusing to talk to each other about the issues that are important to us and who we want to govern us.
Opening up to each other about our values, wants, and needs leads to a stronger democracy.
Getting out in our neighborhoods and our towns and having these conversations leads to a better understanding of what is important to us, what we need, and what we want, and, therefore, who we should vote for.
Having said that, canvassing works best when canvassers are working off of targeted ‘universes.’ It is not a good use of campaign resources to have canvassers for Joe Biden knocking on the door of someone who loves Trump, has always loved Trump, and will always love Trump. It is important to talk about politics, but there is no need to antagonize each other when it can be avoided.
Have I convinced you? Canvassing works, winning issue campaigns and winning candidates do it, and canvassing strengthens our democracy.
So, greet that next canvasser that comes to your door with a smile, ask them questions about the issue or candidate they are working for, offer them your honest ideas and opinions, and send them off with a nice “thank you for strengthening our democracy.”
And volunteer to canvass for a candidate or issue you care about. You can make a real difference by simply walking around chatting with people in your community.