Welcome to Activist Land!

Activist Land provides tools and a pragmatic forum for the progressive activist community. It aims to complement traditional political blogs by emphasizing how you can get involved in specific issues and how to integrate activism into your life in an effective and sustainable way. Therefore, in addition to calling for action on a particular issue, it encourages people to post "activism opportunity" posts that describe the nuts and bolts of how one would, or did, take action in a particular instance.

My main area of focus is media reform. I've been working with Save Boston's Progressive Talk to help bring progressive talk radio to Boston, and I've written interviews to publicize "The Real News", an independent international news network. My secondary area of focus is election integrity. I maintain a set of Voting Rights pages with an emphasis on an election integrity timeline. I've written pieces on these and other subjects for Daily Kos and my local newspaper. For more info, see my first post. Come and join the community!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Canvassing is All About Showing Up

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 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.

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?

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.

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.

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).

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?

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