Going Canvassing: How to Prepare

Election 2004 | Building/Consensus
Four years ago, I thought that to be elected a President, it was sufficient for the candidate to have experience in the White House, command of the issues, a platform which would benefit the majority of Americans, an abiliy to withstand the press’s snipings about his wardrobe, authorship of a government report on airline security… ok, all but the last. What I didn’t realize is that what he really needed was a collection of votes in New Hampshire and Florida, and a little door-to-door canvassing might have helped turned the tide. So, four years too late, I some did canvassing in those battleground states. (We took the granite, but lost the sunshine.) I only canvassed on a handful of occasions, but whenever I did, my fellow canvassers marvelled at the stories I told afterwards. So I thought it best to write it down to be useful for future campaigns.

I’m writing it publicly for a couple of reasons. One, my volunteering engagement with ACT/NJDC and “Operation Bubbe” as well as with the Kerry-Edwards campaign earlier, did not compel me to keep this information private. As a courtesy I already gave this feedback to the representatives on the ground, during the campaign. Secondly, I think there is an important public interest in making sure that election tactics are reported publicly. That is the spirit of the law and of public civilities.


I hate to reference FrontPageMag, the webzine edited by David Horowitz which serves as feeder to conservative news outlets (it was the source of the slander against the Heinz Foundation and the Tides Center), but their October piece on The Shadow Party is well-informed, if not a little paranoid. The article had addressed the emergence of the America Coming Togerher as a “527” shadow organization which . Specifically it lodged this complaint about ACT’s tactics:

ACT and its affiliate groups use intrusive, high-pressure tactics to register and mobilize voters, both by phone and by door-to-door canvassing.

I don’t have to defend ACT from this group. I merely want to a little part to dispel the suggestion that the tactics were “high-pressure”. We were not instructed to do so. Was it possible that some of us broke the guidelines? Well, if someone was going to, it would have been me: no one complained louder than I about some of the more “Mickey Mouse” guidelines we had to follow. But among the instructions I followed were those that asked to respect people’s privacy and difference of opinions.

These were the basic instructions we were given by the ACT staff. They gave us instructions on paper, which I did not save, and played a video for us to illustrate examples of good and bad canvassing engagements. Here’s the basic instructions as I understood them:

  1. Move quickly. Cut conversations short, even those Kerry love-fests. Don’t even enter a house, even if you are invited. Move quickly, since you have to knock on doors.
  2. If you ever get stopped by the police, or community watchdogs, know your rights: this is protected by the Constitution and validated by the Supreme Court.
  3. For this canvassing operation, because of the way it was structured for tax purposes, you can say anything short of “Vote for Kerry” or “Re-defeat Bush”
  4. If you encounter a Bush supporter, thank them for their time and move on.

I’d only amend that 4th statement slightly. You can try to convince your first Bush supporter, and when you register that icy cold stare of someone from the enemy’s camp… That’s how it feels. It’s alright for people to learn this once. At that point, your aim is to leave the impression that liberal activists are the most respectful activists on earth. (My education was while doing canvassing phone calls, where I asked registered voters in Aventura, FL, to tally which candidate they expected to vote for. I broke the script and tried asking some of the Bush voters to explain why they had chosen… <click>.)

Our group was a bit flustered at first by the limitations of what we could say. But it turned out that I never had to resort to such banalities as telling a stranger whom to vote for. I could be far more clever, and far more persuasive.


Here’s how I prepared:

  1. You need to have confidence in the issues and in your knowledge of the candidates.
  2. You need to have confidence in yourself.
  3. You need to have confidence in the organization.

I have a lot of confidence in the issues; I’d followed the campaign since January. I was in fact a bit surprised on my first canvassing that someone in our van hadn’t known that two of Kerry’s grandparents were Jewish. It hadn’t been a campaign issue for over a year, but it was just a handy piece of trivia to know if you were canvassing with a Jewish group. I had read the Globe‘s biography of Kerry; I had read Edwards’s Four Trials, Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, and during the week had started reading Bob Graham’s book Intelligence Matters. Big shot, huh? Maybe it would have been more fun if we did some quiz game on campaign issues to bring everyone up to speed. If I had gone up to canvass every weekend, I may not have had time to do all the reading I do.

I’m not sure if I’m a born salesman, though my father is. Both my grandparents were in sales. From what I learned, the name of the game is to have confidence in oneself. You have to feel that you’re doing the right thing, and feel as if you’ve been doing it your whole life.

There’s a bit of a knack in getting people to answer questions when you appear at their door. I recommend reading detective stories; I’m particular to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s assistant, would use a bit of subterfuge to gain the confidence of people he needed information from. Sometimes he identifies himself as “a private detective licensed by the State of New York,” which sounds like, but isn’t the same as, identifying himself as a police officer, which would be illegal. So I would channel Archie Goodwin, with the difference being that invariably he would encounter damsels in distress, later take them dancing, to the mild displeasure of his girlfriend. That didn’t happen to me.

Another good hobby to have besides reading detective mysteries is gardening. (Nero Wolfe himself spends four hours a day with his orchids in the greenhouse of his Manhattan brownstone, murder or no murder to solve). From my experience, people liked to be complimented on the exteriors of their homes. I saw some splendid orchid arrangements hanging outside, which one can only do in the near-tropics of Florida, but unfortunately their cultivators were not home. In Portsmouth I had actually had better luck finding gardeners. But it’s not just gardens that decorate the yard; election day conveniently follows Halloween, in which on of a dozen houses may have some haunting decorations outside, typically to scare away evil spirits and political canvassers. One lady even showed me inside to display the decorations inside (damn the rules!), where there was a giant coffin. “Would that be the President, or the Senator, you have lying in there?” I asked. With men I pondered whether to compliment them on their cars. I was tempted to ask of a Dodge Ram truck owner whether “that thing gotta Hemi?” (He wasn’t home.) The young man who had an Altima in his driveway won my praise– I’d been renting one all week.

I honed my script somewhat to make sure that my interactions would get answers. So I asked questions that could only be answered with yes or no, either of which I would be prepared for. (The classic salesmen’s technique is to never ask a question which could be answered with No: “Let’s meet again. What’s best, next Tuesday or Thursday?” The success of this is not guaranteed. The typical answer I get from prospective dates mirrors a Bob Mankoff New Yorker cartoon of recent vintage: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never– is never good for you?”)

Lastly, I had enough confidence in the organization. We didn’t exclusively target the Jewish voters, as we had expected to. The organization was sometimes wrong, and we had to think on our feet. Or, more accurately, let our feet do the thinking for us. We were expected to stay out till 7pm every time, but by about 5:30pm we realized that most people would sit for dinner, and we deserved to sit as well.


Here’s the script I settled upon:

I’m with the Florida Mobilzation Project/America Coming Together. I’ve got to go door-to-door here, and I’m just here to make sure you have all the information you need
I have a few names on the list at this residence, I just want to make sure that our information is correct.

I did this to make people feel comfortable that, if nothing else, I was there to remove their name from a list. I have a hypothesis that Americans are more worried about private information being collected wrongly than they are of information being collected at all. As it already is collected, we as citizens/consumers just want to make sure it is correct. Many people were happy to help point out who had moved or who had died. They of course assumed that the information would be fixed. I sure hope so.

We are here to make sure. Do you know when and where your voting?

This was the stated mission of America Coming Together, so I asked that question. This year, Florida was one of the few states to offer early voting. Going into the weekend, ACT had encouraged us to tell people to do. Thankfully, the people told us otherwise. Palm Beach had one-hundredth the number of early voting stations then election day stations, leading to obscenely long lines to vote.

But some people were very new to their neighborhood and appreciated being informed where to vote.

And do you know who you’re voting for?

This seemed to me to be a natural follow-up to the previous questions; these are the three pieces of information a voter has to be aware of before they vote.

Maybe 5 people in a hundred told me no, they were still undecided at that point. I would ask them if they had any issues. And I’d let them speak about the issues, while I listened along and, like a trial lawyer or therapist, amplified any issues that seemed to make sense to both of us. (I covered this in more detail in my post from Florida)

Most of the people answered the question in the affirmative, but not everyone told me who. I got these answers:

“Yes, and I’m not going to tell you.”
“Yes, but I won’t tell you; I don’t even know who you are.”
“Yes, and I believe in a secret ballot!”

For a while I was stymied at this point, and we didn’t need the information. The best I could think of was to ask for a hint, and sometimes I got one: “I’ll give you this hint. We moved here from Texas. We saw one of them as Governor on TV over there, and the other one as Governor here. If we never see either of them again on TV, I’ll be very happy!” (She was referring to the Bushes, of course).

By the end, I got wise, and formed this sly question:

I have you down on this list as a Democrat. Is that correct?

The man I asked this of took the bait. “Nope, not this year!”

I made an exaggerated mark on the spreadsheet, and assured him that we’d update our records.


Who are you working for?

I got this a lot on the phone doing voter identification; that’s when we just ask people whom they’re supporting, and it skews the results if it says JOHN KERRY FOR on the caller ID. Sometimes the caller ID was morphed to “Victory 2004” (or intentionally unavailable) . With some voters I offered a compromise that I’d tell them, but they’d have to tell me first. It worked a few times.

When you show up at someone’s door, you’re a bit more exposed. A few people still were trying to me on this. I had a badge which displayed “Florida Mobilization Project”, which more often than onot was turned around showing my name and mother’s name– as my emergency contact. I explained the overlapping, sometimes coordinating organizations, and that was good for most people.

Are you from here?

I would tell them I was from Boston. That actually impressed some people in Florida, even the snowbird who came down early this season ot vote for Bush (he was more impressed– astonished is more like it– that I had paid my own way). Some pressed on further because it sounded like I was invading their neighborhoods. If they did that in Delray, I would tell them that I was visiting my Aunt Bernice (my mom’s cousin), who lived in the development next over. I don’t remember if I got that in Portsmouth, which is just an hour’s outside of Boston.

Still, it’s good to know the neighborhood. I’d visited Portsmouth a few times before, and generally knew the city. South Florida I had been to many times in my life, and knew the roads and some of the developments. I was surprised at how many canvassers from other vans hadn’t registered where they had gone that day.

What are you selling?

“I’m selling democracy.” My canvassing partner Steve overheard that and cracked up. The straight answer is that we weren’t selling anything of course, and we were constitutionally protected, etc.

Some of our group was asked questions by a public safety officers in cruiser. I couldn’t understand why, since this was the same cruiser whom I had smiled and waived at earlier. Smile and waive.

Who are you looking for?

The best answer I gave in Florida was that I was looking for people on my list. Who so happened to be registered Democrats or Independents. In Portsmouth, the correct answer was supposed to be “undecided voters.” But I had answered “Kerry voters”, which was the wrong thing to say, since we really were looking for undecided voters.

Who are supporting?

When not on the Kerry campaign, I could afford to be a bit evasive. I told people I voted for Kerry. I told them I voted for Kerry… and wouldn’t you know, I had “early voted” in Massachusetts.

Somebody else visited this place before!

That’s possibly true, I told them, they may have been from a different group. Which group was it? Well I’m with ACT and we’re just trying to make sure we get out the message…

Of course, it was a bit embarassing that houses were hit twice. And that’s another story to be told, the Coordinated Campaign That Wasn’t…

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    Going Canvassing Joseph Needham Apr 10 ’07 4:44PM