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Political Canvassing

After reading many political articles on Medium, I am amazed at how little these political writers know about election campaigns. Most writers seem to assume that campaigns are about voters changing their voting preference from one party to another. Nothing is further from the truth!

Now don’t get me wrong: switching votes does happen. In my younger days, I used to be apolitical and didn’t pay much attention to politics. But I did vote as my civic duty. In two elections, I entered the voting booth not knowing who I was going to vote for. What made me put my “X” here and not there is still a mystery to me.

But I was an anomaly. We undecideds are only a few. Converting undecided voters is not the focus of election campaigns. There are bigger voter blocks for political parties to go after.

A party’s supporters can be divided into distinct groups. The first is the hard support. These voters are going to the polls no matter what. They are committed to the democratic process to cast their vote—and they certainly have a preferred political party to vote for. Political parties need not worry about these votes not being counted.

The second group is the soft support. These voters also have a preference. But their motivation to make a trip to the polls is not high. They can use various excuses to not cast a vote, like “It is raining” or “My son has a basketball game” or “I had a long day at work.” If these excuses become the reason not to make the trip to the voting booth, the party loses that vote. So much of any local campaign is about putting a “ground team” together. This ground team’s mission is to find the party’s soft support and encourage them to vote on Election Day.

A party’s soft-support voters vastly outnumber the undecided voters. And it is easier to convince a soft supporter to vote than to reason with an undecided voter.

The first step with soft supporters is to identify them. The campaign office will send out one or two volunteers to a specific area of the electoral jurisdiction. The volunteers will be given a badge from the party, a map of the area, some campaign literature to hand out, and some info sheets they fill out with each encounter. These volunteers, called “street canvassers,” will knock on doors in this area, having a little chat with the residents. With that little chat comes a quick assessment of where that resident stands politically. The information that is most useful to the campaign office is “supporter.”

Street canvassers are instructed not to spend much time at any residence. Be nice, get the information, and move on to the next residence. Canvassers should not argue with any contrary voter. Nor should they be engaging in a long conversation with a supportive voter. The canvassers’ job is to find as many supporters in their assigned area as they can, which usually takes two to three hours. Campaign offices have lots of maps to show the areas that were canvassed.

When the street canvassers return to the campaign office, the supporters they have found will be put into a database. Later, phone canvassers will call these people to encourage them to vote, probably several times during the election. The day before and the day of the election can keep the phone lines busy.

Much of the local campaign involves identifying and encouraging soft supporters. Nothing more, nothing less. Political writers really should understand this, but it’s more exciting to believe that campaigns change votes. Get this straight: Campaigns do not change voting intentions in any significant way. But campaigns can get hundreds and thousands of soft supporters to the voting booths.

Canvassing is not easy. It involves meeting many unknown people, many of whom will be politically  opposite to the canvasser. Sometimes, there is hostility: wrong political party or nap interruption or bad life timing can make canvassers wonder why they are giving up their free time. While many canvassers are committed party members, a good campaign manager still needs to motivate the volunteer workers. There are two ways to do this.

The first is to create a good social atmosphere in the campaign office. A canvasser can meet other canvassers to share stories; political junkies pontificate with each other; boys meet girls, girls meet boys; a little alcohol from time to time—and canvassers come back to do more canvassing. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the campaign manager is to find that balance between the frivolity to keep canvassers coming and getting campaign work done.

The second way to keep canvassers around is our obsession with celebrities. The party candidate should be spending an hour a day around the campaign office, talking to all the canvassers. Canvassers like being around an important person; if the candidate wins, canvassers can say they know someone in government. Another celebrity mechanism is to bring party heavyweights into the campaign office during one its more social times. The canvassers like telling their friends that they were in the same room as ________ and ________.

The candidate is probably working 12 to 14 hour a day at this time. If there is nothing on the candidate’s schedule, he/she will go door knocking, taking a couple of senior canvassers with them. Senior canvassers get to spend two or three hours with this celebrity! But to be senior, one needs to do a lot of canvassing beforehand.

The information gathered by canvassers is far from perfect. This is a volunteer task. There are many cooks adding ingredients to the same soup pot. Some canvassers are more professional than others. Many residences are missed because no one is home. Even so, campaign managers still find this imperfect information useful to get more votes into the ballot boxes.

Does canvassing the party’s soft support actually produce a higher vote count? This is actually hard to conclusively prove for the election is held only once. We cannot run two elections: one with a capable ground team and one without—and measure the difference. But for those campaign managers who have seen many campaigns, they will tell us that the quality of the ground team makes the difference in close elections. The quality of the candidate has an impact on the quality of the ground team.

The electoral edge of canvassing was truer in the pre-social media era than it is today. I suspect the parties are seeing a bigger voting return for their social media budget than for hosting social events for their ground teams. In my opinion, something has been lost in democracy when a party no longer needs its volunteers help to win elections.

When Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican primary, many of the dependable and experienced Republicans withdrew their expertise from the local campaign offices. In essence, Mr. Trump had perhaps the worst ground team in modern American history. Yet he was still a viable contender in 2016. That should have been a sign of how committed his supporters truly were.

Ms. Clinton inherited the ground teams from Mr. Obama’s time. They had the managers and people to work the canvassing. They knew what to do. But things happened in that campaign. Too many soft Democratic supporters were losing reasons to make the trip to the polls. The ground teams could not convince them otherwise.

One of those things was Mr. Comey’s “email” announcement. That probably cost Ms. Clinton 500,000 votes. Now those votes did not go to Mr. Trump. They just did not show up for Ms. Clinton. No one switched their voting preference. But the result was almost as good for Mr. Trump as if they did switch.

I can’t prove 500,000 Democrat voters did stay home on Election Day because of the Comey news. But it’s not hard to believe that 0.8% of Democrats made the decision to not waste their time for someone with so much controversy. That soft support was actually writing American history.

So how do political canvassing and ground teams fit into my alternative system of democratic governance?

Answer: Won’t and can’t.     

Tiered Democratic Governance (TDG) has electoral units of about 200 residents in each particular neighborhood. It also has no political parties. Canvassing is a by-product of political parties. It is hard for me to imagine an ambitious neighbor assembling five or so canvassers for the neighborhood.

Part of the task of the early builders of the TDG is to build a culture that eschews campaigning for a position. TDG members should not only be trained to vote for good character and capacity for governance, they need to be watchful for members who are using campaign tactics to help secure an elected position on the TDG. I believe enough members will have this attitude well in place. Ambitious members who say something like “Vote for me” won’t have many votes. Ambitious members who have built a ground team to conduct canvassing will get fewer votes. Canvassing will be counter-productive to any electoral success in the TDG.

A side benefit to the TDG related to canvassing is that all the volunteer hours dedicated to political ground teams will be freed up to do more important tasks for society. Imagine more people sitting on non-profit boards or coaching kids’ sports teams or helping troubled youth. 

Published on Medium 2021

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