The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why I love political canvassing

Knocking on strangers' doors to talk politics is most people’s nightmare. I find it liberating.

(Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The moment before knocking is the hardest part. Standing on a neighbor’s front stoop, I double-check the name and age on my canvass sheet — Tara, 29 — and give three firm taps, hoping they’re loud enough to be heard from upstairs but don’t make me sound like the FBI.

As I wait, I restack my literature, a brochure picturing the dapper, necktie-wearing candidate and the promise that he will FIGHT FOR YOU. When no one comes to the door — usually the case — it’s a relief. With any luck, I’ll blow through this list and spend the rest of Saturday at the lake.

When the door does open, I see myself reflected in the occupant’s eyes: a strange woman with a clipboard and the faintly desperate smile of a religious evangelist. But this is also the moment when things get easy.

On a recent Saturday, the weather preempted my plans to go kayaking, so I decided to canvass for a congressional candidate from my swing district. The campaign office gave me a list of individuals who sided with the party in presidential elections, but didn’t vote in midterms or primaries. Tara, the first person I met that day, opened her door about 15 degrees. The candidate’s name wasn’t familiar to her, so I showed her the brochure picturing the man chatting with constituents. I explained that he wants to go to Washington so he can defeat the agenda of the other party, which we think is bad for America.

That got her attention — she agreed that the other party is bad for America.

“So you’ll vote in November?”

“Absolutely!” she said with a thumbs-up.

I’ve been a volunteer canvasser since 2004, including stints with six different candidates in local races, primaries and presidential contests in three states. It doesn’t always go this well. Some people shoo you away immediately. They are on the phone/starting dinner/about to pick up the kids, they explain as they take your pamphlet and shut the door. Other times they’ll endure your spiel with a weary, distant stare, like you’re a traffic light. Occasionally, you’ll receive open hostility, like the man in 2016 who told me to “get off” his property — as if I was planning to set up a lawn chair and crack open a beer.

But this last scenario happens rarely, especially in 2018. One of the biggest misunderstandings about canvassing is that it’s about changing people’s minds, or swaying that thin slice of college-educated suburbanite swing voters, whose mood cable-news analysts parse with surgical precision. But in 2016, half the country didn’t vote. The main goal is not to get people to switch sides, but to compel those sympathetic to your candidate to show up.

Things went well that day. A gray-haired man in a trucker hat, sitting on his patio listening to music, cheerfully vowed to vote. An elderly woman rose from her sick bed when she heard her husband and me talking about the election. On a street of soul-crushing McMansions, a young woman stood in her doorway with wide eyes as I talked about the vote breakdown in Congress and the New York state Senate. “This is all really good to know,” she said.

Later, I stood on the side of the road, reorganizing my address lists. Across the street, a man working on his truck gave me a friendly hello. I didn’t know if he was on my list, but the day was going so well! And he was so nice! I told him I was a volunteer for my party’s candidate and asked if he was a member of that party, too.

No, he was in the other party.

Are you planning to vote for the candidate from your party?

He sure was!

Okay, I said.

Good luck, he said.

You, too, I said.

I understand that as a middle-aged white woman, the world is a fairly benign place for me. I’m aware that someone from another demographic group could walk the same route, meet the same people, and have a completely different experience.

Still, the exchange reminded me that outside social media and cable news — that is, in the real, physical world — most people aren’t gunning for a fight. Most cross-party interactions don’t result in iPhone-recorded screaming matches — not because people aren’t passionate about their beliefs, but because it’s Saturday, and the sun is shining, and they just want to work on their truck, or listen to some music on the lanai, or throw a cooler in the back seat and head to the lake.

A friend recently told me she doesn’t canvass because she thinks she can do more good by harnessing her sizable social media platform, which does seem more efficient than tramping around some cul-de-sac. But a 2016 overview of voter-mobilization research by political scientists Alan Gerber and Donald Green finds that the slow, personal approach is still the best way to bring people to the polls.

On that Saturday, it took me three hours to knock on 24 doors and speak with six people. That might seem like a questionable return on investment, but one of those people was a not-yet-registered 18-year-old Latina, who was delighted when I gave her a voter-registration form. A few weeks later, I spoke with a 78-year-old woman, who had doubts about My Guy until we started talking about a health-care issue, and she recalled a broken promise the Other Guy made to a constituent. These conversations are worth several thousand retweets.

In these days of personal brands, it’s liberating to present yourself to the world simply as a concerned citizen. The neighbor standing in her doorway doesn’t know how many followers you have or what your company’s net revenue is or what schools your kid got into.

In that moment, you’re just someone who cares, and you’re betting that they care, too. You’re usually right.