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'Knocking' voters into submission

Knocking on doors is easy, knowing what lies behind them is the hard part. Emma Benson, in campaigning for a conservative political organization Americans for Prosperity comes armed with a smart device and a raft of data points about the householder. These include voting propensity, likes and dislikes mined from social media, magazine subscriptions and so on. The voter profiling gets more sophisticated with each election cycle it seems. When your door gets knocked on in it is hard to appreciate just how much that person knows about you already.

The real aim with any door-to-door canvassing is to garner data. All of this information can then be used to better craft the message delivered and, ultimately, win that vote. Identifying the swing voters in any constituency is often the real challenge to a campaign team. Though political campaigning has changed a lot in the past 10 years, actually, much remains the same. Politics is still, underneath all the flashy suits and email scandals, a battle of persuasion. The frontline of that battle is still on the doorstep and the better your arsenal of information the better chance you have of winning.

According to the Center of Responsive Politics, the amount of money spent on persuading and mobilizing voters in the 2010 US Federal election was nearly $4 Billion which is an indication of the enduring power of the doorstep in getting candidates elected.

The History of Canvassing

The Canadian publisher, Our Windsor had a recent article titled “Why parties still ‘knock up’ voters”, looking at the origins of the word ‘canvass’. A recalcitrant, or reluctant voter, who needed persuasion into the ballot box was bounced into the air on a large sheet of canvas. The other origin story, though probably equally apocryphal, suggests the canvas material would have been used to filter and sift liquid to find, say, gold. Both stories highlight the advantages of canvassing, namely, filtering your voters and getting them out to vote on election day. Sadly, we no longer bounce people up and down, we just knock on doors now.

The article goes on to outline the first systematic use of canvassing to get the vote out more than 50 years ago. The NDP party’s Stephen Lewis is credited as assembling a three phased approach very similar to best practice today. The first phase filters voters into yes, no and maybe so that the second phase can concentrate on just the maybes, or swing voters as they are also known. The third phase of canvassing took place in election week then and focussed on getting the vote out. Labour intensive it might be but it was cheap and effective.

Though it comes with many challenges there really is no substitute for pounding the pavement. Canvassers may get lost, they may cover the same ground twice and handwriting will certainly be illegible but candidates going eyeball to eyeball is still essential.

Capturing the doorstep experience

Thanks to advances in the field of mobile technology, campaign managers and consultants are now looking towards customized political software tools to help them make the most of their resources. Software solutions that capture canvassing data offer a more streamlined way of overseeing the entire ground game.

People like Emma Benson, those who are professional canvassers now find that the landscape of doorstep interaction has changed utterly from when they started this type of work. Far from being distanced from voters they feel that mobile app solutions now strengthen the bond between candidates and voters. Voter issues are recorded in real time and transmitted to campaign HQ to be addressed directly. Email replies giving voters updates on their issues can all be done instantly by the campaign manager.

Knowing what is behind the doors that get knocked on is certainly a science. For canvassers though, it is simply about recording previous canvass information and then building on this knowledge. In this way, the national can become, once again local, the way the best politics should be.

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