Walking the Talk:

Successful Canvass Strategies

by Leah Campbell
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.

Training Canvassers

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.

Role Plays

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 vote.

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."

Safety Guidelines

Civil rights campaigns can be dangerous. Be sure to consider the safety of your volunteers before you send them out on the canvass.

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 considered:

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.