Persuasion Canvassing: Tales from the Campaign Trail

 /  Oct. 19, 2016, 11:20 a.m.


It is that time in the election cycle again for thousands of campaign volunteers. We have been hard at work stuffing envelopes, putting out yard signs, and handing out stickers. Every fluctuation in the polls inspires us to work harder for our candidate. One of the most important contributions a person can make to a candidate’s campaign is volunteering his or her time and efforts going door-to-door canvassing. Voter contact is essential to any winning campaign.

There are two different types of canvassing: persuasion canvassing and GOTV, which stands for “get out the vote.” GOTV occurs right around the time of the election, as a way of making sure voters show up at the polls. Persuasion canvassing can start around six months prior to the election and its purpose is to “get out the message”—to inform voters and convince them to vote for a particular candidate on election day.

Over the summer, I worked as a field organizer for my local state senate race in northern Illinois. It is one of the few competitive state senate races in the state—my senator, Melinda Bush, is a Democrat elected in a district where 53 percent of voters identify as Republican. Part of my job was to spend four hours a day, six days a week persuasion canvassing. I crawled through brambles in order to reach people’s front doors and debated which of three doorbells I should ring first. I was chased off properties by angry German Shepherds, nearly got run over walking up and down streets without sidewalks, and almost fell through dilapidated porches. On multiple occasions, I got so hopelessly lost trying to find a house that did not exist that I ended up in the wrong state.   

Canvassing is the best thing you can do to help a candidate win an election. The Obama campaign’s use of data to identify people for turnout and persuasion transformed the way voters are targeted. Through endless data crunching, campaigns can now identify straight-ticket Democrat and Republican voters and people who do not vote at all. There is no reason to send seasoned volunteers or field organizers to these voters’ doors because nothing we could say would change their minds. This data crunching is a very efficient way to target time and resources so that they can most benefit the campaign. Sophisticated voter-targeting algorithms are essential to a successful campaign, but, they are useless if campaigns do not have people who are willing to show up at voters’ doors and speak to them face-to-face. While canvassing is physically and emotionally taxing, it is well worth the effort. Research shows that calling voters through phone-banking does not have the same positive effects at the polls as canvassing does.

What makes canvassing so challenging is the fact that the majority of voters are not informed. For example, Columbia Law School found that two-thirds of American citizens think that the Marxist maxim “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is in the US Constitution. Therefore, going door-to-door to persuade uninformed voters to make an informed decision on election day—or show up at the polls at all—can be as difficult as it is essential. The potential voters targeted by campaigns tend not to be too happy that you have interrupted their dinner so you could discuss politics with them. They are the type of people who will likely go out and vote, but they probably have not thought about local elections—if you are lucky they might know who their local elected officials are.

Over the course of the summer, I encountered many interesting constituents. Doors were slammed in my face, crazy dogs chased me, and male constituents invited me to join them for a beer. Some voters delivered condescending lectures on how I know nothing about politics; others told me they would never vote for an incumbent or that they are voting for Donald Trump. I learned that people like to discuss policies that don’t exist and yell about their property taxes. I can tell you that it is challenging to have a political conversation with someone who is completely naked, really high, or has a four-year-old child peeing on the porch as you speak. Every time I walked away from a door thinking that I had now seen and heard it all, something else happened.

For all the slammed doors and crabby constituents, there are plenty of people that you can convince to vote for your candidate. There are people that are interested in what you have to say and want to hear about how your candidate plans to represent them. I have had more than a few voters who were genuinely touched that someone came to talk to them. After all, voter contact is targeted so that the people you speak to are supposed to be persuadable. There are technicalities of framing an issue designed to change a voter’s perspectives, but from having knocked on over seven thousand doors, I can tell you that that is not what makes canvassing so effective. People are persuaded by passionate canvassers intent on proving to voters why their candidate is the best for the constituency. When someone feels strongly enough about a cause that they are willing to get out there and knock on doors, people are willing to pay attention. Regardless of the outcome of the interaction, canvassers force voters to think about the election and, if nothing else, improve the candidate's name recognition, which helps win races.

Your job as a canvasser doesn’t end when you walk away from the door, though. An important part of the data collection occurs after these conversations, when you rank the prospective voter’s support from one to five: one being a solid supporter of your candidate, five being someone who is solidly against your candidate. As my co-worker said on the last day of canvassing this summer, “No matter what the University of Chicago throws at you, nothing will ever be as hard as walking up to the door of a solid five.”

The difficulties encountered during canvassing challenge your dedication to the cause. If you are passionate about the candidate or a cause, there is nothing more satisfying than a long day of canvassing. Talking to people face-to-face is the best way to ensure that they are aware of the election and that they understand that their vote matters. When a candidate you feel strongly about reaches out and asks you to canvass for them, do it. I can guarantee that you will have some great stories to tell when you are finished.

The image featured in this article is courtesy of the author, Sarah Wasik.

Sarah Wasik

Sarah Wasik is a fourth-year double majoring in Public Policy and Philosophy. She has spent her summers working campaigns and interning at both the state and federal levels of government. When she isn’t writing, reading, or learning more about policy and politics, she is probably running up and down the lakefront path or spending time with friends.


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