Canvassing Lessons from A Seasoned Door-knocker

This very hot and muggy Saturday morning, I joined many other volunteers in Medford to knock doors and talk to voters about Elizabeth Warren, candidate for United States Senate. Door-knocking can seem intimidating: you’re going to a complete strangers house to tell them how to vote! But the influence volunteers have on a campaign by door-knocking is enormous. Julie Kaviar offered her tips for first-time canvassers. I thought I’d share some tips I’ve learned from 9 years of canvassing:

Gear: You’ll obviously need appropriate shoes and clothing for the time of year and weather conditions. Besides that, you’ll need to be able to carry a pen, your clipboard with map and list of doors to knock (also known as turf), and your campaign materials – whether they be door hangers, literature, postcards, etc. Don’t forget a snack or sunscreen if needed. Before you go out, exchange phone numbers with the canvass organizer.

I recommend bringing a small messenger-style bag to hold a bottle of water (bring a reusable bottle!) and your literature;  a clipboard (in case the campaign doesn’t provide them); two medium-sized binder clips; and if there is any chance of rain, a 1-gallon plastic zipper baggie. Use the binder clips to attach the map to the back of your clipboard so you can read it instantly, instead of flipping through your turf sheets. Also, clip down finished turf sheets under the map so you don’t have to shuffle through extra pages. If rain starts, slide the baggie over your clipboard to prevent your results data from running!

Purpose: Canvassing is effective because it allows campaigns to identify people who are supporting the candidate, and later turn them out to vote. And it allows for undecided voters to learn about your candidate and possibly be persuaded towards her or him. It’s helpful to remember that strong supporters are usually the first people a campaign identifies. So when you’re door-knocking, you are often skipping supporter’s houses, and going only to houses of people who have not yet told the campaign who they are supporting, or have not yet made up their minds. This can sometimes be disheartening because you might not get a lot of people telling you that they love your candidate. That’s OK, and doesn’t necessarily mean that your candidate is doing poorly or isn’t going to win. Your efforts talking to voters are incredibly valuable!

On the turf:

  • Knock every door! Even if you don’t see lights on or cars in the driveway, knock or ring the bell anyway. Someone may be home, so try anyway. And if you can’t hear the doorbell from the door, knock loudly.
  • Clearly mark your results for each door. Usually your turf sheets will also come with a key to all those two-letter and number codes: NH=Not Home; MV=Moved; 1=Supporter; 5=Supports Opponent, etc. Make a note if it’s helpful for people coming back to the door, such as that they speak a different language, or you’re told they work nights.
  • People usually take a lot longer to get to their door than you think. After you ring the doorbell or knock, wait a good minute. You can listen to hear if someone is coming to the door, or sometimes you’ll see the blinds move or see the pressure on the curtains change as someone approaches to see if you need to wait a bit longer.
  • Some people don’t use the door to their house that faces the street. If you don’t see a mailbox on the front door, or it seems unused (check for lots of old newspapers or flyers; a pathway or driveway that leads to a side door) and there is an accessible side door that looks well-used, try that door instead. This can especially be true in larger houses that have been split into apartments. Make sure you stay visible from the street, and don’t go around the back of the house alone, even if that is the more-used door.
  • Whatever day it is, most of the people on your list are not going to be home. Another reason why it’s important to volunteer– it may take 3 or 4 visits before someone from the campaign talks to that voter. But you have to keep trying to reach them.
  • If the person at the door has moved away, ask for the new resident’s name and see if they have registered to vote yet. The campaign may decide to send them a voter registration form.
  • You cannot leave literature in a mailbox – it’s illegal. If you have a flyer or pamphlet to leave, close it into the storm door. Sometimes you can curve the literature and wedge it between the door handle and the door jamb, or under an open lever-style handle. If you have space, you can write a “Sorry we missed you” note on the literature.
  • Sometimes a voter will ask you questions about your candidate that you don’t know how to answer. Mark their question down and have the campaign or candidate themselves get back to them. Thank them for their interest in learning about your candidate. Sometimes, as I did when I was asked a question about a national issue while canvassing for a city council race, you can remind the voter of the scope of the office and the types of issues the person will face.
  • Canvassing is not soliciting. You can still ring bells or knock on doors with “no soliciting” signs. However, if a person asks you not to come onto their property or to leave it, politely comply.
  • Smile! When you’ve talked to someone, remember to be kind to them, to thank them for their time, and to wish them a nice day. Most of us rarely get kind treatment from strangers, so be the exception!

Finishing up: Make sure that you’ve marked the results of each house on your turf sheet where appropriate. I always write my name and phone number down on the tops of the turf sheets I walk. That way, if someone from the campaign can’t read my writing or has a question, they can contact me. Now pat yourself on the back and sign up for another shift before you go home. Because there are only 120 days left until Election Day, and we have a lot of people to talk to!

Elaine Almquist is the Chair Emerita and National Committeewoman for the Young Democrats of Massachusetts; a second-term member of the Democratic State Committee; and an elected delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. She has been volunteering for candidates since 2003.

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