Why I love po­lit­i­cal can­vass­ing

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY SARA ECKEL 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 pre-empted 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 wom- an rose from her sick bed when she heard her hus­band and me talk­ing about the elec­tion.

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

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.

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.

THE SLOW, PER­SONAL AP­PROACH IS STILL THE BEST WAY TO BRING PEO­PLE TO THE POLLS.

NATE BEELER

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