Walking the Talk:
Successful Canvass Strategies
The primary goals of the canvass process are to reinforce media messages,
persuade undecided voters, and identify voters' positions who haven't
already been contacted by phone. In doing so, we accomplish a secondary
goal; the human interaction of the door-to-door contact breaks down false
perceptions based on ignorance and the misleading messages of our
opposition. The canvass is the highest quality contact a campaign can have
with voters, and is most effective in swinging undecided voters in our
favor. For these reasons, canvassing operations must be tightly organized
and carefully targeted. However, it is important not to forget that for
many volunteers, the campaign may mean a great deal more.
For people who have struggled long and hard in under-funded organizations
that are frequently under attack, the campaign may become a vehicle for
achieving personal goals. The fear and anger and the many aspirations of
your volunteers must be dealt with in a manner which demonstrates respect
and appreciation for your base of support. Volunteers are not just
resources and tools of a campaign management team, they are people. In
campaigns that intend to put the humanity of many of these people up to a
vote, this is especially important to remember.
No campaign wins alone -- victory relies on cooperation and commitment on
the part of many people, and will be built on the foundation that has been
established by everyone in the community who has struggled against
discrimination. Let them know they count!
This section offers a few tips on effective canvassing techniques to
maximize voter contact while using volunteers in a way that encourages
continued involvement in the struggle.
The purpose of canvass training is to prepare volunteers to make direct
voter contact by building their confidence, informing their actions, and
helping them feel like an integral, in fact, fundamental part of the
campaign. The training is also a good time to give volunteers an update on
the campaign and thank them for their support.
Everyone should feel some ownership of the campaign. Give them a brief
overview of where the canvass fits into other campaign operations.
People like to have something to read along with as they are being trained,
so prepare a short script for them as well as a few important training
points and responses to commonly asked questions.
Rally The Troops
Before you begin the training, explain the importance of the canvass in the
campaign. Give them an update on the campaign, and pump up their
enthusiasm. The canvass is the closest we get to having frontlines in
election campaigns and you need to encourage your volunteers to keep
working toward your goal.
Get Down To Basics
There are two basic persuasion skills that should be emphasized when
training canvassers: eye contact and keeping the conversation and message
as short as possible. Eye contact conveys trustworthiness and confidence.
A short, simple message is best because the basic ideas we want to
communicate get lost when we over-explain ourselves. There's an old saying
in canvassing that the more information the canvasser gives, the more
questions the person at the door will have. Finally, a short, simple
message is polite. You are interrupting people when you go to their homes.
It's far less likely that undecided voters will experience an attitudinal
revolution in the middle of Saturday morning football than become annoyed
over being disturbed.
Do a couple of role plays using the script for your canvass. Make these
role plays interesting and fun by doing parodies of different kinds of
canvassing experiences. Demonstrate ways to control the interaction with
short, clear messages to questions that arise. Make sure these responses
are consistent with the message of your campaign.
Explain to canvassers that undecided voters are unlikely to come down on
one side or another on your issue while you are at the door. What is
important to the campaign is that you have some idea how the person stands
on your issue. Have canvassers ask one or two qualifying questions in
order to determine how the person stands. A good example of such a
qualifying question is, "so can we count on you to vote no on 11 on
November 2?" Make sure that if the person at the door says yes, that they
know when to vote and encourage them as strongly as possible to get out to
Remind canvassers to practice the rap a few times before starting rather
than reading the script at the door.
Here's a sample canvass script:
"Hello, I'm Leah and this is Scot. We are with the No On 11 Campaign, and
we are encouraging your neighbors to vote No on ballot question 11. Are
you familiar with question 11"
"Question 11 is a constitutional amendment that wants to mandate
discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens of Tillamook County. We
believe most people in our state would vote no on discrimination. That's
why we are asking you and your neighbors to vote no on ballot question 11.
Can we count on you to vote No?"
"Thanks for your time. Be sure to vote No on 11 on November 2nd."
Civil rights campaigns can be dangerous. Be sure to consider the safety of
your volunteers before you send them out on the canvass.
- Volunteers should work in pairs rather than alone.
- Coordinators should have the names of every volunteer on the canvass
and know where they have been assigned to walk.
- Assign a return time by which volunteers must report back to the
canvass staging site, and hold them to it.
- Record all incidents of harassment or assault, and be prepared to
contact the police and to deal with trauma.
- Canvassers should never enter the home of any person on the canvass
- Canvassers should have a phone number to call in case they get lost or
an emergency arises. Make sure the phone is staffed.
- Canvassers should be able to recognize signs of danger such as
neo-Nazi paraphernalia, etc., in areas where it is likely they may
encounter such opposition.
- Canvassers should beware of dogs.
Create Goodwill Ambassadors
Remind canvassers that just as voters in candidate campaigns often vote on
style rather than substance, in issues campaigns, voters frequently
determine their votes based on presentation rather than content. For this
reason, all volunteers who become associated with the campaign are goodwill
ambassadors for your position. For this reason, the following tips should
- Be polite and respectful -- remember that many voters will have
concerns of their own, and our issue may not be the most important to
them. Deliver the message, but don't be coercive or demanding.
- People you meet at the door may have many questions. Be prepared to
answer them with short, simple answers. Don't fall into a debate or
over-personalize the issue.
- Remember that voters need to know why voting your way helps them. They
may not be interested in knowing about you. Be respectful and keep
- The religious right wing are irrational fanatics. We are reasonable
people trying to deliver the truth. Be a voice of reason.
- Remember that our opposition uses fear as a tactic to win votes and
support. When you go out on the canvass, don't be scary!
Creating New Leaders
As with all organizing training projects, the canvass training should
develop confidence and encourage new leadership. Be sure to create
opportunities for those who would like to take leadership to become
involved on that level.
These potential leaders should be involved in training sessions designed
for trainers that will give them the opportunity to look over the entire
campaign field operation, and become familiar with techniques of volunteer
recruitment and training, and logistical coordination of phoners,
canvassers, and voter lists.
Allow potential new leaders to shadow canvassers and phone bank
coordinators as they train and supervise volunteers, and manage lists and
other logistical information.
After The Canvass
Log the precincts and the progress of the canvassing operation on a
progress chart. Offer the canvassers some food and beverages after they
return. Ask them a few questions about their experience so you can get a
feel for how voters are responding.
Be prepared for critics and supporters of your efforts. This keeps
volunteers coming back and it builds respect for your campaign in the
community. Moreover, volunteers often have very worthwhile suggestions for
running the canvass.
For more information or to request a complete Fight the Right Action Kit,
call NGLTF at 202-332-6483, TTY 202-332-6219.