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“A Shave and a Haircut”, A User’s Guide to Door Knocking

I’ve seen how powerful talking to a voter face to face can be and how important it is to reach out to people in person. I worry that too many of us think a campaign can be won on advertising and the power of a sound political platform alone.

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Last year I spent two weeks canvassing in the general election in Arizona and another three weeks canvassing in the Georgia Senate run-off election.

I’d canvassed before for local candidates in the San Francisco bay area, but never for more than a few hours maybe one, two Saturdays out of the year. On those more local campaigns the only thing I can really say I learned is that most of the time when you canvass people are not home.

But if you canvass every day for weeks at a time, you soon come to realize that there is more to it than knocking on doors that probably won’t open, dropping a flyer and moving on. You will have conversations with voters, far more than you might expect. You will have tense encounters with people who don’t want you in their neighborhood. You will probably get lost down unfamiliar streets. You will get caught in the rain. You will have someone threaten to call the cops on you.

I’m no expert on political campaigns or messaging or the strategic decisions that go into figuring out a ground game. But I have walked plenty of doors and definitely gotten into the nitty gritty of getting out the vote. I’ve seen how powerful talking to a voter face to face can be and how important it is to reach out to people in person. I worry that too many of us think a campaign can be won on advertising and the power of a sound political platform alone. That if people hear a candidate say the right things and seem competent that will be enough to send them to the polls. But often it’s much smaller things that keep people from voting for candidates. Sometimes they need practical information like where their polling place is or how they can register for an absentee ballot. Sometimes they don’t realize that just because they’re a felon doesn’t mean they can’t vote. Sometimes they just need someone to remind them every day that they are planning to go early vote this Friday, at 4pm, at the church on Greyson highway, and that their sister will be watching their kids while they vote. Sometimes they don’t realize that today is the last day to vote and they only have 2 hours left to cast their ballot! And sometimes they just need to see that someone has come from thousands of miles away to knock on their door and personally ask them to make sure they cast their vote because both of their futures hang in the balance. 

So I’d like to share a few tips for new canvassers or people who have never done it before. I hope that in reading them you will get a glimpse of what political canvassing is really like and be inspired to give it a try.

The Door Knocker’s Tip Guide

First and foremost, understand why this election, this candidate, this issue is so important to you.Maybe it’s because your brother lost his health insurance and is worried about what will happen to him if he’s hospitalized with COVID, or any unforeseen event. Maybe someone in your family needs to be paid more than our paltry excuse for a minimum wage. Maybe you’re afraid that when your kids think about going to college the thought of high student debt keeps them away. Whatever your reason, keep it close to your heart. Not only will it give you the motivation and courage you need to walk for 6 hours a day, 7 days a week, talking to total strangers whose reactions to your politics you cannot predict, but your reasons are a reflection of your humanity. If you present your humanity to the person in front of you, they are far more likely to engage with you and feel solidarity.

Spend more time studying the ins and outs of voting than candidate platforms. You want to be an expert at helping people vote. Learn the voting schedule in the state you’re canvassing. Learn how to find polling places and how to register for absentee ballots. Learn how a properly filled out absentee ballot looks, where it has to be signed, how much postage it needs. Learn how to track the status of a ballot. Find out how to get a voter to the polls if they have a disability. The majority of the people you talk to are going to want to talk logistics, not politics.

Learn to use your cell phone. For those of you who haven’t canvassed since the days of paper voter sheets, you will probably be rather intimidated by the new programs being used today to track conversations with voters. You might be frustrated at first, wondering who in their right mind would think flipping back and forth between different apps is easier than a simple clipboard and pencil. But cell phones offer far more tools for the modern canvasser than sheets and sheets of paper. They streamline access to voting information, to maps, to vote tracking websites. Information you can pass directly to the voter by texting or emailing them on the spot. It’s hard enough to have a natural conversation. Don’t add fumbling around with loose papers to the mix. Which leads me to…

Backpacks. Carry one. Have your water, your hat, your sweater, your extra literature neatly stored where it won’t get in the way of your hands. The fuller your arms are the less relaxed you will be talking to a voter. I encouraged newer canvassers to assume a posture at the doors that makes you feel confident and empowered. Having your hands free while you talk helps you seem human and less like a dispassionate salesman.

Ignore no soliciting signs. People seem to forget they put those in their windows and rarely give you grief for ringing their doorbell.

Study your script. The script you are handed on your first day is a wonderful outline of all the key points you need to go over with a voter. Have they voted? Who are they voting for? Do they know their polling location, or do they plan to submit an absentee ballot? What’s their plan for getting to the polls (date, time, method of transportation)? You might walk away from a door thinking you had a great conversation with a voter about when and where they plan to vote, only to realize you forgot to ask if they were even supporting your candidates. The script will tell you every question you need to ask.

Ditch your script. Its awkward. It’s wordy. It’s probably not how you normally talk. If you try to recite your script, you’ll probably get tongue tied. If you try to read your script (even worse than reciting) you will come off as cold and impersonal, unenthusiastic. Also, its inflexible. If you’re relying on the script only to find that your voter is deviating wildly from it, you’re going to have some really awkward conversations if you try to stick to canned lines. Make the script your own. Think about what information it seeks and put that in your own words. Be flexible. Canvassing is about connection. Connection is about conversations. Good conversations are never scripted.

Gated communities are not inaccessible. Drive in after another car. Walk in when someone opens the gate walking out. Just make sure you have your team lead on speed dial. It’s possible someone might try to get you kicked out, but sometimes they can be talked down. I had a very pleasant conversation with a security guard while his boss argued with my supervisor about my right to be there. In the end he bid me good day and drove off. We’d share a friendly wave whenever we passed as I continued to canvass his residents.

Knock that door. Don’t tap. Give it a good rap with your knuckles, or else use a hard object that won’t damage their door. Houses are big and a timid tap could easily get lost beneath the sounds of the washing machine or kids playing. Ring the bell too. I mean, you want them to know you’re there, don’t you? Also, instead of three solid knocks equally spaced, try a “shave and a haircut”. You don’t want people thinking you’re the cops.

Your voter is not their demographics. Don’t assume because your voter is Black or Latino that they’ll vote Democrat. Don’t get freaked out that you’re probably talking to a Trump supporter because your voter is a fifty-year-old white male with a pickup truck in the driveway. Let the voter speak for themselves and try not to be surprised by what they say. You’ll get better at this the more doors you knock.

Be excited. If you positively ID your voter as supporting your candidates, celebrate right then and there. I like to dance a little, or else raise my fists in victory, which usually brought a smile to the voter’s lips. If you’re having fun, the voter will have fun and will probably be more willing to plan their trip to the polls with you.

Compliment voters on their dogs, their Christmas or Halloween decorations, or the giant gong they have instead of a doorbell. If you like Star Wars and the voter has an R2D2 t-shirt on ask them whether they thought “The Last Jedi” made any sense. It’ll help you find common ground and relax.

Don’t give the voter an out. If you ask, “Can you spare a moment to talk about voting,” they’ll say “No, I’m busy,” or now isn’t a good time. Instead ask “Have you voted for (whoever/whatever you are working for) yet?” Don’t ask “can I have your phone number to follow up with you on your vote plan?” Instead say “I’m going to text you the voting plan we just discussed. What’s your phone number?” 

Don’t get stuck talking to undecided voters. Ask them to share what’s important to them and what their concerns are. Make a connection on those concerns. Share similar concerns of your own and say why you support progressive candidates and a progressive agenda to address those concerns. But don’t spend too long with them. If you spend half an hour with an undecided only to have them not shift at all, you could very well have wasted your time. You have other voters to talk to who will be more committed to your candidates but who could use a little help finding their polling place or navigating a specific impediment to voting. Let the undecided mull over your discussion. Let them think about what it meant that you came to their door. Get their phone number. Text them later when you have time. Keep the connection alive. But don’t wait around for them to change their mind.

Get the voter’s phone number. This may seem like a very bold ask, but it’s very important. If you text a voter reminders about a specific vote plan you discussed together, they will be less likely to forget to vote on the appointed day. Voters are busy people. Be a helpful reminder. And if they need help with something in the future, like figuring out why their absentee ballot hasn’t arrived yet, or needing to know what form of ID to bring to the polls, you can be an easy point of contact for them. Also, if you have their number you can create accountability. Tell them to send you a selfie with their “I voted” sticker. Or a shot of their entire family going to the polls. Or they can send a pic of themselves putting their absentee ballot in the mailbox. I know, it seems crazy, but it’s actually pretty effective and voters seem to enjoy it. Who doesn’t like sharing an awesome selfie? Plus, it’ll give you a boost to see people proudly following through on their promise to vote.

Don’t argue with voters. If the person is spouting QAnon theories you should thank them for their time and walk away.

Take time to regroup and breath if you had a tough door. Give yourself time to rest. You don’t have to be a perfect canvasser all the time. And don’t carry the bad door with you to the next door. The only people who know you messed up are you and the last voter. Each new door is a chance for a new first impression.

Always remember that canvassing is really hard work. You may knock eighty doors in a day, talk to only twenty people, fifteen of whom actually support your candidates, five of which have already voted, another five of which aren’t willing to tell you more than that they support your candidates. If among those last five you’re able to have inspiring conversations, help folks find their polling place, or create vote plans then you’ve had a pretty good day. This work is about getting votes one by one. Your job is to add a few drops a day to the growing wave.

Nelson Perez-Olney is a IBEW member.