Door-knocking is the gold standard for both political campaigning and community organizing.
The connections that are formed when neighbors meet neighbors are the most effective both at turning out the vote and at building organization membership. Donald Green and Alan Gerber, leaders of voter turnout research, put it this way in their book, Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout: “Face-to-face interaction makes politics come to life and helps voters to establish a personal connection with the electoral process. The canvasser’s willingness to devote time and energy signals the importance of participation in the electoral process.”
Political Campaigning vs. Community Organizing
Door-knocking is a valuable outreach tool for campaigns as well as organizations, but while the two types share basic methodology, they have different imperatives:
- Political campaign door-knocking is usually brief and simple – aimed at determining how a person who is already on a list of voters will vote and, if they prove sympathetic, encouraging them to turn out. Campaigns often tell their canvassers to spend no more than 90 seconds with each voter. What counts is the volume of contacts, not their depth.
- The goals of community organizing door-knocking aims are to learn the concerns of people met at the doors and draw them into the organization. Long, serious conversations about neighborhood issues are exactly what organizers seek.
If community organizations want to turnout voters on a big scale, they need to learn to do wide but shallow canvassing. This is the only way to achieve a significant volume of contacts. However, it’s still possible to build the organization through this kind of canvassing: people recruited as door-knockers often evolve into an organization’s most committed, serious members after the election.
The Weekend Canvass
The regular weekend canvass is one of the primary means by which many electoral projects contact (and re-contact) their targeted voters. ALLERT, as Anthony Thigpenn explains, begins a Saturday walk mobilization with an inspiring rally that includes some issue education, then splits canvassers (or “precinct leaders”) into groups for field materials training. After canvassers return, they debrief while sharing a meal – tempting volunteers with food is a great way to ensure that they remember to return after the canvass, those precious walk-sheets in hand!
Organizers take these walk-sheets and update the voter database according to the information collected by the canvassers. Next Saturday, they’ll print a new list, and if a canvasser is working the same neighborhood, they’ll have the pleasure of watching that list get shorter as more and more voters are ID’d. The second video allows you to follow along as two ALLERT canvassers door-knock in a Los Angeles neighborhood.
Eight (not-so-secret) secrets of effective door-knocking:
- Training is the key to a successful canvass. People going out on the doors need to feel they know enough about the project’s key issues to hold a conversation. Role play activities help.
- That said, training is time consuming – if it takes too long, people get bored and end up walking for very short periods. Project organizers should run through the training session before volunteers arrive to make sure that it covers all the bases in a relatively short amount of time. For a complete run down of a door-knocking day, see How To Put on a Walk Mobilization.
- Door-knockers need to be trained in using voter lists or other systems of recording information about voters that they will be using. This is as important as their training on the key issues of the project, and we’ll cover it in Field Materials Training.
- In most areas people should go in pairs for mutual encouragement and possibly safety. Make sure that at least one member of each pair has a phone and knows how to call the organizer.
- Not everyone can read maps. Make sure someone in each pair can.
- Organizing transportation to the areas to be walked can be a major hurdle. Think ahead about how you’ll do this.
- Everyone needs to come back – make sure that all volunteers understand this during the training. (If they don't come back, you’ll spend hours retrieving lists of voters and other fieldwork materials.)
- Organizers should be prepared for occasional crises: door-knockers have been arrested, gotten lost, had their partners disappear, been hit by a car, etc. Try to think ahead about how you might deal with these kinds of emergencies. You assume a lot of moral, if not legal, responsibility when you send people out to door-knock.