How to Run for Office: Some Real Talk on Voter Contact Expectations
by Natasha Smith, User Experience and Communications Manager, National Democratic Training Committee, @traindems
“Politics is about shaking hands and kissing babies.”
Has anyone ever actually said that to you? While it’s a tad simplistic, there is a tremendous amount of truth to the statement. The truth is, politics is about voter contact.
Voter contact means introducing yourself personally (and with volunteers) directly to the voters. Most of the time voter contact means knocking doors and making phone calls, but it also includes glad handing and working the crowd at events, train stations or even county fairs.
While there’s no way that you’re going to be able to talk to every single voter that you need to win your election, you can still meet with the portion of voters that will make the largest impact on your campaign.
Research consistently shows that the most effective way to win over a voter to vote for you is personal contact. Think about it. Who would you be more likely to vote for: a person who reached out to you and had a personal conversation or the person you never met and only saw an ad or received a mailer for?
Now, we are not arguing that paid ads don’t work. They do. However, most voters never meet any candidate and so they use ads to help inform their decision.
Before you go out into the field, there are a few things you should be prepared for.
Canvassing can be a physically taxing ordeal — be sure to bring water, a snack, campaign literature, clipboards, pens, and anything else you might need while going door-to-door. You don’t want to waste your time at the local convenience store picking up supplies!
Will you need an umbrella?
You’ll also want to be sure to check the weather forecast before you go out: most campaigns will canvass rain, snow, or shine because they’ll have brought the necessary outdoor wear for the day. A little rain never hurt anybody, but if there’s a blizzard outside you might want to think about rescheduling.
You’ve asked an individual to vote for you — what’s next?
The voter will pick one of the following three options. Here’s what to do:
YES: Congratulations! You’ve convinced this person to vote for you and have gotten a solid promise for their vote on Election Day. Mark them down as a 1 or a check (depending on the system you’ve decided to use*) and move on to the next house.
- We explain the systems in our Contacting and Tracking Your Voters course.
MAYBE: The upside is that this voter isn’t a dead end. The downside is that you’ll have to spend more resources trying to sway this voter. This person will require more time to make their decision and you or a volunteer will have to follow up with the individual to try to convince them to vote for you. Tell this person that your campaign will be in contact with them at a later date to discuss their vote again.
NO: Believe it or not, a hard no answer is actually a good thing. You don’t have to waste your resources on this person anymore. A definitive no is definitely a good thing. We’d rather hear a hard no than have to spend more time and effort on a wishy-washy voter who refuses to commit to voting for you!
If you’ve hit a patch of consistent hard no’s, don’t be discouraged. It might be beneficial to reassess the area you’re targeting and find a better zone to canvass in. You’ll likely be able to find more swing voters you can convince to vote for you.
NOT HOME: If the voter isn’t home, don’t immediately move on! Be sure to leave evidence that you tried to contact the resident. A personal note along with some campaign literature can go a long way. It proves that you took the time to try to engage with that person — this impression can be helpful when Election Day comes. Just be sure to not put your campaign lit in their mailbox! Aside from this being against federal law, it leaves a bad impression on the voter. Leave your note and campaign lit under the doormat or somewhere else that’s visible on the porch where the resident will see it.
You should also be conscious of your timing when contacting voters. There are somewhat unspoken ground rules regarding when it’s appropriate to be contacting individuals at their home. Basically, anytime before 9 am and after 9 pm and before noon on Sunday is off-limits. It’ll result in a grumpy voter and will likely lead to that person not voting for you.
Canvassing is fun!
The best times to knock on doors are during early evenings, from about 4–7 pm and Saturdays. Most people will be home around this time and contacting people during these times will actually be worthwhile.
Also be aware of local events! If there’s a major hometown sporting event, for example, going on and you’re out knocking doors during that time, it’s likely that not enough people will answer their doors to making your canvassing worth the time and effort you’ve put into it.
So, why do we do all this? Well, it can be the difference between winning and losing an election. Engaging voters in personalized contact humanizes your campaign and really helps you toward success. If executed correctly, this part of the campaign is enormously rewarding.