Table of Contents

What Is Political Canvassing?

Political canvassing occurs when candidates, staff, or volunteers from a political campaign attempt to directly contact voters by going door to door. This door knocking is part of an extensive outreach plan that helps put a face on a political campaign. The more people a candidate, staff, or volunteer of the campaign reaches, the further the campaign’s message spreads. Canvassing can be used to help identify supportive voters, sign up voters to vote by mail, advance Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts, and persuade undecided voters leading up to the primary or general election.

How Effective Is Political Canvassing?

Research shows that canvassing can be quite effective in some surprising ways. One study from 2017 showed that canvassing worked especially well during primaries and when gathering signatures for ballot initiatives. Direct outreach was also shown to be the most effective form of outreach conducted by campaigns at all levels. Not to mention, canvassing is quite successful at helping with GOTV efforts, especially when coupled with targeted address lists to help identify unregistered or undecided voters. Some campaigns have been able to increase voter turnout by as much as 9% from canvassing alone. A candidate’s campaign must form a strategic canvassing plan that optimizes both the timing of the door knocking and the targeting of voters.

Knowing Which Doors to Knock On

Public records show whether a person has registered to vote and what party they’ve voted for in the past. These records are helpful in establishing your outreach universes. Having up-to-date, well-defined universes will help you put together walk sheets for your volunteers to use during their canvassing shifts. Your outreach universes will help you break voters into categories (e.g., high-turnout undecided votes, low-turnout supportive voters, etc.). These distinctions and others will allow you to target voters based on what type of door knocking is most effective for different parts of the campaign cycle. For example, you could target persuadable voters during the primaries and then shift your focus to helping voters get registered to vote or encouraging them to mail in their ballots during the GOTV phase of the general election (learn more about general vs. primary elections).

Organizing Volunteers

When you have field volunteers properly organized, it will maximize your campaign’s political canvassing efforts while ensuring you use your campaign’s resources as efficiently as possible. Your field organizers will help you find, train, and manage your canvassing volunteers. Training can then be done in groups or individually, depending on the size and needs of your field program. Prepare your volunteers with walk sheets to guide them through their canvassing shifts. These sheets should include targeted voter information, and volunteers should fill out the sheets with information gathered from talking to voters. Such information will provide your campaign (and potentially other campaigns you run) with additional voter data to use. You’ll also want to prepare and provide your volunteers with the appropriate campaign literature. They can take the literature with them into the field to drop at doorsteps, helping increase awareness of you as the candidate, even if no direct contact is made. Finally, provide your volunteers with a set of your campaign’s talking points. Door knocking provides a great opportunity not only to share the campaign’s message with voters but also to refine that message based on voter reactions, questions, and feedback.

Political Canvassing Techniques

Here are a few tips and tricks that you, your campaign staff, and your campaign volunteers should use when canvassing for your political campaign:
  1. Stay polite: Not everyone will agree with your campaign’s mission, and many won’t answer the door. Don’t take these reactions personally and strive to remain polite, which makes a good impression on people—even when they disagree with you.
  2. Don’t be too pushy: Your goal is to be pleasantly persuasive. People may be hesitant to listen, change their minds, or even open their doors. The right amount of pressure and goodwill can make a strong impression long after you’ve moved on to the next door.
  3. Keep moving: When canvassing, expect to spend an average of 1–3 minutes per door, with a goal of an average of 20 doors an hour. When someone does answer, spend no more than 3–10 minutes talking with them, enough time to establish a rapport while still making progress on making it through your entire walk sheet.
  4. Know that not all doors will open: The majority of the doors you knock on while canvassing will remain firmly shut. Some people will hide in the house to avoid answering, so don’t linger for more than 90 seconds. Instead, knock, provide time for them to answer, and then leave behind some campaign literature before moving on to the next door.
  5. Collect questions and feedback: Volunteers aren’t expected to know the answer to every question a voter might have. Assuring voters that any questions that can’t be answered on the spot will be passed on to the candidate/campaign not only makes a good impression on the voter but also gives you and your campaign a chance to fine-tune your message and how it’s delivered.
  6. Practice pandemic safety: Political canvassing has been changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Practicing proper safety (outlined in the next section) will increase your personal safety and how comfortable voters are when you knock on their doors.
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COVID-19 Tips for Canvassing Safely

There are many precautions that can help ensure political canvassing is done safely during the COVID-19 crisis. Here are a few key ways to ensure everyone stays safe:
  1. Conduct training and check-ins for volunteers remotely using programs like Zoom.
  2. Ensure everyone wears masks while canvassing. Masks are easily customizable, so this could also provide an excellent messaging opportunity (e.g., a candidate name or campaign slogan).
  3. Practice social distancing by knocking on doors and then stepping back a safe distance so that voters feel comfortable answering the door.
  4. Have volunteers prepare the campaign literature for their shifts themselves to reduce the number of people who come into contact with the flyers and with each other.
  5. Focus on a mail-in voting message, and encourage voter turnout by prompting folks to mail their ballots in ahead of time.

FAQs

  1. Is political canvassing considered soliciting? No. Political canvassing is distinct from soliciting because you aren’t asking anyone to buy a product. Rather, you’re reaching out to the community or communities that you’re hoping to serve. Beyond helping to get out the vote, the information exchanged through door knocking will help you understand how efficiently your campaign is running. That information will also help you understand what issues matter to voters and how your message is being received.
  2. Is political canvassing the same thing as door knocking? Yes. The term “political canvassing” refers to one aspect of a campaign’s outreach efforts, knocking on doors and talking in person. Canvassing is a method that can be used for fundraising, grassroots campaigns, primaries, and Get Out The Vote efforts. Other outreach methods include phonebanking, mailers, TV spots, and social media ads.

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