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Don't Like Trump! Get out and canvass.

Political canvassing is an important tool in winning elections. Most people believe that canvassing is mostly a sales job, trying to convince a potential voter to vote a certain way. There is a small amount of truth to that, but there is a much bigger reason for canvassing.

Political parties divide the electorate into several categories. Each category requires its own election strategy. Here are the basic American categories:

1. The hard support for the R Party

2. The soft support for the R Party

3. The undecided or swing voters

4. The soft support for the D Party

5. The hard support for the D Party

6. The voters who are unlikely to vote.

For categories 1 and 5, there is no amount of marketing that can change minds. And these two groups are highly committed to making the trip to the voting booth on voting day.

For Category 3, these voters believe in their civic duty to vote but have not made up their minds. They can be swayed by a handshake or phone call from the candidate — or even a brief conversation with a canvasser. In 2020 in the USA, this voter group is small.

For Category 6, these voters do not see much difference between D’s and R’s. Why should they make the effort to vote?

Categories 2 and 4 are the key to winning elections—especially close elections! Soft support can easily be convinced not to make a trip to the polls. A hard day at work, a busy family life, and even some negative advertising can contribute to such a voter not making a trip to the polls. Parties really need to manage their soft support. Canvassers play a big role.

The Math Behind Canvassing

When a voter is canvassed, the party worker or candidate makes a quick assessment of voter intention. If the voter seems to be supportive of their party, the address is listed as a supporter. Hopefully, a name and phone number are also recorded. The canvasser takes that information back to the party office and puts that person on a list. When a lengthy supporter list is acquired, the party can use it in several ways. For example, the supporters may be called a few days before election day to help increase their enthusiasm for voting. The expression that is often used is “bringing out the vote.” Many people on this list are not as committed to politics as the canvassers on the campaign team are. In other words, canvassing is about finding like-minded (albeit less committed) voters and getting them to the voting booth. It is not about changing minds.

Let’s imagine a canvasser for the Democratic Party. Between today and November 3, this person pledges to work two evenings a week to rid the USA of the Trump presidency. Such a person can probably talk to 25 people a shift. That means he or she can interact with about 300 voters until election day.

We need some numbers to determine how those 300 interactions can translate into votes. When I bring the 2016 election results into my math (65m Clinton; 62m Trump; 108m no-vote) and a few somewhat reasonable assumptions, I have broken down those 300 voters to:

41 Hard D

40 Hard R

111 Soft D

109 Soft R

89 Traditional Non-voters

Such an analysis probably deserves more research to be regarded as truly scientific, but I think these primitive estimates help make a few points about the importance of good canvassing.

When a D canvasser encounters a Hard D or Hard R supporter, it is best not to engage too deeply. These people like talking politics when they find an audience. They will gladly take up the canvasser’s time—which means the canvasser sees fewer people. The canvasser’s instructions: record the D supporter and politely break the conversation, pass over the R supporter, move on to the next residence.

Let’s look at the 111 Soft D supporters. By identifying and recording 111 people who might find an excuse not to vote, that canvasser has probably found an extra 100 votes for Mr. Biden that he would not have got on November 3.

Let’s look at the 109 Soft R supporters. Let’s assume that there is no way that canvasser can influence that voter to change his or her preference. But that little meeting with the Soft R supporter just might be enough of an encounter to flip that voter’s psyche not to make a trip to the polls. That’s almost as good as a D vote. Let’s think about this brief encounter as influencing another 10 votes not going into Mr. Trump’s ledger.

Let’s look at the 89 non-voter category. In this 2020 election, the traditional non-voters have more incentive than usual to vote—and I would say they are not going to favor Mr. Trump. Just by having the courage to engage with strangers and giving a reasonable first impression, our canvasser just might entice 10 of these 89 citizens to vote.

So the total effect for one canvasser is an estimated 120 votes! For maybe 30 hours of volunteer time. 

Why Canvassing Still Matters

I realize that my math and assumptions can be criticized. But 120 is not a bad estimate for what a canvasser can do for a couple of nights a week. Multiple 120 by 1,000 D canvassers—and you have 120,000 more votes with canvassers than without canvassers. That’s quite important in a swing state.

So let’s compare the efforts of one canvasser to one anti-Trump writer on Medium. Can that writer bring in 120 extra votes for Mr. Biden?

Far from it, I say. All those claps and great comments that stroke the writer’s ego and swell the writer’s Medium paycheck are already voting against Mr. Trump. So no new voters were found for those few hours of political writing.

And besides, all sorts of mass media outlets are already passing around more than enough anti-Trump articles. These publications also have some reach into the Soft-R support to help convince them to stay home. A few hundred more anti-Trump articles on Medium are not going to change the electoral result one bit. But the Democratic Party will be hard-pressed to cover each American neighborhood by November 3. Ideally, it would like to cover each neighborhood twice.

Canvassers can also take the day off work for election day. Show up at the local Democratic office early and just follow the orders of the campaign managers. Such a political worker can help bring in more votes than they could by sitting in front of the TV listening to political pundits and the advertisers who pay the pundits.

There isn’t much glory in being a canvasser. And talking to all those strangers puts one outside of one’s comfort zone. Most canvassers would not take their canvassing experience into a hobby or occupation. Canvassers seldom get political favors. These political workers are mostly altruistic. They want the change the candidate seems to lead toward, and they then sacrifice time and comfort to effect that change. To change political outcomes, canvassers are in a higher league than the political writers on Medium.

Canvassers for Mr. Biden! My hat is off to you.

But please understand that your efforts are only creating a temporary solution. The next populist leader will be studying Mr. Trump’s presidency in great detail, figuring out what went right and what went wrong. Do you really want that?

May I suggest that you canvassers investigate a new way of governance; one in which the likes of Mr. Trump won’t rise too high, one that really does not need canvassers to remove the likes of Mr. Trump! Your commitment to this new way would be about 10 hours a month, something you have already demonstrated you are willing to sacrifice.

P.S.: You will have more fun building the TDG than canvassing.

Published on Medium 2020

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